Parties hashing out annexation, traffic deal

Mount Jackson officials meet today to take up a major annexation request speeding its way through the approval process.

The Planning Commission and Town Council will hold a joint public hearing on a request by Robert Whitehurst to annex into the corporate limits approximately 576 acres of agricultural land in Shenandoah County. The property lies adjacent to 146 acres owned by Whitehurst in Mount Jackson that Town Council recently rezoned from agricultural to limited industrial use.

But as the clock winds down toward a possible approval, state transportation officials and parties involved in the process are still trying to stay on the same page. Terry Short, district planner for the Virginia Department of Transportation in Staunton, said Friday that parties had agreed to language in a proffer that outlined the developer’s and town’s responsibilities with regard to the annexation and future rezoning.

At issue is when Whitehurst and the town can move forward on rezoning the 576 acres if annexed – once a developer provides a traffic-impact study or submits a site plan. Whitehurst and developer Ray Burkholder, of Staunton-based Balzer and Associates Inc., submitted a proffer outlining their responsibilities with regard to the future annexation and rezoning of the 576 acres. Burkholder did not return a call for comment Friday.

The proffer, as VDOT officials understood it, required the developer to conduct a traffic-impact study on the combined properties prior to the town’s consideration of the annexation request, Short said.

Last week, VDOT officials learned the developer submitted a proffer with slight but significant changes.

“From what I was told, the applicant thought that the [verb] tense change provided greater clarity and matched our intent,” Short said. “The problem with that is that nobody asked us if that was our intent or not.

“That said, I’ve talked to the town and I think we’re going to try to figure out a way to maybe take another look at that language and make some adjustments that is more consistent with what we’re trying to do,” Short added. “It would essentially try to ensure that, prior to the rezoning, should the property be brought into town boundaries through annexation that no rezoning is to be considered [by] the town until a [traffic study] is to be completed.”

State code requires that a locality inform the Virginia Department of Transportation of any rezoning requests. Prior to approving the rezoning, the applicant must also have a traffic impact analysis conducted to determine the effect that changing the zoning would have on area roads. Town Council approved the rezoning in April without a traffic study. Town Manager Kevin Fauber has said that rather than conduct two studies, one for the first rezoning and then a second after the annexation, parties worked out a deal to require the analysis for the combined properties.

Matt Smith, area land use engineer for the Staunton District, pointed out Friday that while the change to the proffer appeared small, it altered the intent. The proffer stated that before the developer submits a site plan for the parcel already in town and/or annex any of his other properties, he must conduct a traffic impact study, Smith explained. The tense was changed in the proffer to make it sound like the developer could annex the property and not need to conduct a traffic study until a site plan was submitted, Smith said.

“The intent of the proffer was changed without our knowing,” Smith said.

“At least in my mind, if the town moves forward with the annexation, they’re starting that journey down that path to rezone that property and they’re starting that journey without knowing the transportation impacts,” Smith said. “That’s why the proffer, as we understood it, we were OK with because – they kind of ignored the code and went on and were fast-tracking this rezoning.”

Smith pointed out that the proffer put the onus on the developer to provide the traffic study and to make any necessary improvements to mitigate the impact.

“I don’t even know if the town recognized the difference [in the proffer language],” Smith said.

Short acknowledged the process continues to move forward at a quick pace.

“It’s a land assembly at this point and our interest again is to protect the interest of the town, the county and the traveling public and whatever land-use decision they make it’s ultimately their decision to make,” Short said. “We’re just there ready to, again, do all we can to protect the taxpayers’ interest.”

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com