Mount Jackson leaders, planners talk ‘mega site’ future

MOUNT JACKSON – Shenandoah County’s ex-chief of economic development suggested Monday that the town let down some barriers to potential growth.

Developers can avoid the “emotion” and numerous steps that go along with the permit-approval process if Mount Jackson made certain industrial or commercial uses by-right, Brandon Davis, former director of the Office of Community Development, told members of the Planning Commission, Town Council and a focus group working on the Comprehensive Plan.

The group met to hear from Davis, now the head of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, as they discussed the future of the hundreds of acres annexed by the town in December along with 150 acres already in the corporate limits. Eleanor and her brother Robert Whitehurst Jr. own the property and also attended the meeting.

“If everything is a special-use permit, it requires a public process and an outside business is not going to go through a public process and give away their strategic plans because another company who’s their competition will then see exactly what they’re trying to do and can possibly move faster than that,” Davis said. “So if you allow something by right that the community has decided is appropriate and you define it narrowly enough to where it’s something the community as a whole is comfortable with, when they come knocking on the door, you can say, ‘We don’t have to go through the public hearing process.'”

The town can determine the uses it wants to allow and include that in the ordinances and Comprehensive Plan.

“This is the public process for that and, by having that conversation now, you remove the emotion from it,” Davis said.

Commission Chairwoman Bonnie Good also commented on by-right use versus the public process.

“It gets done right away because there’s nothing to hold it up,” Good added. “That’s what those businesses are looking for. … It saves everybody a lot of trouble and it allows outside organizations to come in without feeling like we’re gonna put you under the microscope, buddy, and you’re going to have to deal with every Planning Commissioner and every Town Council member and you’re going to have to deal with all the public and maybe, when you get through it all, you’ll get what you want.”

Davis suggested that the group consider aspects of businesses and industries they would or would not like to see in town. The town could list certain uses allowed by-right or with an approved permit.

Davis told the group that they can use zoning as a regulatory tool to determine the future of the property. The group should see if the zoning ordinance meets the intentions of the town’s Comprehensive Plan, Davis said. The town also should “be creative” when it comes to planning the land’s future development, he added.

Businesses and industries look for reasons to eliminate potential places in which to locate, Davis said. Most of that work takes place before those businesses talk to local leaders, he added. Developers look at available information about the community such as their Comprehensive Plan that would say how that area wants to grow. The town could attract more attention from developers if it decides now what it wants, Davis said.

The town annexed the Whitehursts’ property in late December after Town Council and the Planning Commission held public hearings on the owners’ request that drew opposition from neighbors but also support from people who claimed Mount Jackson needed the potential “mega site” to attract economic development. The land lies adjacent to 150 acres already in Mount Jackson that Town Council rezoned for industrial use.

The Planning Commission and Town Council have agreed not to entertain any rezoning request for the annexed land until the Comprehensive Plan has been updated to incorporate the Whitehursts’ property.

At one point during the joint meeting, area resident Jack Frady brought up the idea of a traffic-impact analysis and noted that one was not done related to the rezoning of the 150 acres. Frady added that the Virginia Department of Transportation requires such a study to be conducted prior to a rezoning. Town officials have said that VDOT has allowed a traffic study be conducted on the 150 acres and the annexed land if and when the annexed property is rezoned.

Good said it appeared contradictory to study the traffic impact before the use of the property is known. Frady countered by asking how the town would know what kind of businesses could use the property if they don’t know the traffic impact. Good asked that they set that issue aside for the time being.

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