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Rezoning, special use permit for proposed townhouses approved by Bedford County Board of Supervisors

BEDFORD — A requested rezoning and special use permit application for proposed construction of 217 townhouses in the Forest area of Bedford County was approved in a 4-3 vote by the Bedford County Board of Supervisors on Monday.

The applicant, Lynchburg-based JAM89 LLC, and developers Elevate Communities applied for the rezoning and a special use permit of a 27.6 acre parcel currently zoned low-density residential about a quarter mile from U.S. 460 on New London Road.

The intention is to construct 217 townhouses, to be served with public water and sewer by the Bedford Regional Water Authority.

In the paperwork filed with the county, including the report of the Technical Review Committee, the applicants said constructing townhouses would help prevent “urban sprawl” and did not expect such a development to overburden the school system, as student enrollment has slightly declined during the past couple of years and the overall population of Bedford County is aging.

Developers projected bringing in 27 to 87 public school students over time if all proposed 217 townhouse units were constructed and filled.

“This is a local team with local roots who want there to be success and smart growth for Bedford County, and for this region, who intend to do a quality project,” said Brett Marston, a Huddleston resident and a partner with Gentry Locke Attorneys’ Roanoke office, speaking on behalf of developers. “They’re not somebody who’s coming in from the outside. They want a project … that the county can be proud of.”

The Bedford County Planning Commission held a public hearing for both the rezoning and special use permit application May 3, during which six residents spoke in opposition of the project. The planning commission recommended denying both applications in a 5-0 vote.

The primary concerns raised by members of the public were over traffic and safety — particularly with surrounding attractions and places such as New London Academy, churches, the London Downs golf course, and various businesses and office spaces — and what was overall perceived as incompatibility with the surrounding area, much of which is zoned for agricultural preserve or low-density residential districts more targeted for development of individual homes.

In response to traffic questions, developer representatives Monday said in the first phase of construction, which would consist of 96 townhome units, no road work would be required to accommodate traffic changes. However, beyond 96 units, they would consult with the Virginia Department of Transportation to explore options to improve the U.S. 460 and Thomas Jefferson Road intersection, such as adding a right turn lane or a left-turn yield light. They added the desire to work with local officials to make the development best fit the county.

Marston said the development team believed townhomes fit “squarely within the comprehensive plan” of Bedford County — and they believed this project would serve to meet a need for housing at attainable costs for young couples and retirees alike. This could offer a chance for younger populations to come to the area, which is shown to be aging in the latest census data, and help grow the local workforce and economy as a result.

“The Townes,” as the project is called, is not an “affordable housing” project, or a subsidized, low-income complex, but would sell units within an approximate range of $275,000 to $350,000, according to Greg Lester, a developer who grew up on a dairy farm in Bedford County. If the county wishes to attract and retain residents and workers, which would help bolster the local economy by increasing the workforce and tax base, developers said people needed to be able to afford to move into the area.

Dozens attended Monday’s public hearing, some to speak against the proposed development and others to speak in favor.

Jill Rufus, a Forest area resident, said she supported the project because she would like to see her adult children be able to afford a place to live in the area they grew up in, a point shared by a couple other residents who commented, saying their children had to move away to afford their first homes.

Others were opposed to the plan, ultimately due to traffic and safety concerns the density increase would bring; the potential for overburdening local schools; questions over potential effects to fire and emergency medical service response times with more residences to serve; and feeling that townhomes were not an appropriate fit for the existing community in the area.

Most of those in opposition said they were not opposed to development itself, but said they would rather see the area develop individual homes or subdivisions rather than cramming in townhouse units.

“I don’t have a problem with the development coming in. I want the development,” area resident Matt Smith said. “But do we want 217 homes packed into 27 acres when we already have another 220 homes coming in right next to or behind the Dollar General there?” Smith’s reference was to a current high-density residential development also in Forest.

The board of supervisors were divided on the matter, resulting in a narrow approval in a 4-3 vote.

District 7 Supervisor Tammy Parker, who participated in the meeting via telephone, said while she supported development and acknowledged the need for affordable housing — an opportunity she said she wished her own adult children could have here — she could not support this particular project because the density proposed seemed too great.

“It’s just too much piled in 27.6 acres,” Parker said.

District 6 Supervisor Bob Davis also was not in favor of the proposal. He pointed out that, although the stated goal was to provide more affordable housing in the area, inflation was making such a thing nearly impossible. Even workers making $20 per hour, he said as an example, would not be able to afford a home in the price range named by developers. He also asked why the land could not be developed in a low-density residential manner instead.

District 4 Supervisor and board chair John Sharp and District 5 Supervisor Tommy Scott pointed out the Forest area had been slated for development in the county’s comprehensive plan from the beginning, although the board is selective in development projects they allow.

The Forest area, Scott added, represents about 40% of county revenues. For Bedford County to maintain the low tax rates residents currently enjoy compared to surrounding localities, the tax base has to grow by bringing more residents in. Otherwise, tax rates would have to go up.

“I’d like to welcome this project,” Scott said.

Sharp said while he understood some individuals’ disappointment with the proposal, having purchased their homes nearby with the expectation that development would be confined to individual dwellings, “zoning is not set in stone.” He supported the project.

In the end, District 1 Supervisor Mickey Johnson, Parker and Davis voted against both the rezoning and special use permit applications. Sharp, Scott, District 3 Supervisor Charla Bansley and District 2 Supervisor Edgar Tuck voted in favor.

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