SHEPHERDSTOWN – Peter Corum said businesses are already waiting in line to be vendors at Morgan’s Grove Market, but Jefferson County’s planning and zoning rules are keeping the project from expanding.
The agricultural campus along W.Va. 480 outside of Shepherdstown that is being proposed would add a new building with a commercial kitchen and a local food store that could be used by agricultural start-up businesses to produce and sell “value-added” foods like sauces, salad dressings or ice cream, said Corum.
But, because Morgan’s Grove market is located in an agricultural zone, many of the commercial activities Corum is proposing for the agricultural campus are normally barred.
“I really think we are on the cusp of an agricultural revolution. Our goal is to make Jefferson County the Silicon Valley of value-added food,” he said. “We should be working on the next Ben and Jerry’s or the next Paul Newman’s dressing. Those are all great visions and directions, but in order to enable those we have to get a structure up. We’ve had businesses come back and say, ‘You know, it is really not worth the effort. I can go to Pennsylvania, I can go to Northern Virginia and not meet with this much confusion.”
Corum and consultant Fred Blackmer received approval for a Conditional Use Permit in April and began moving forward with hiring contractors, but county planners are now saying the pair skipped a step in the approval process and failed to submit a concept plan that would have allowed public hearings to be scheduled for neighbors to weigh in on the project’s merits.
“This concept plan provides them with the opportunity to provide the public and neighbors more detail (than was contained in their CUP application),” said Planning Director Jennifer Brockman.
Corum and Blackmer first tried to rezone the site commercial/industrial last year, but the County Commission went against the idea, despite its receiving a favorable review from the Planning Commission. The CUP allows the holder to carry out some activities normally disallowed in a particular zoning category, even though the permit attached a requirement that any proposed facilities be hooked up to the Shepherdstown municipal water and sewer systems.
Corum and Blackmer said their plans were essentially identical to those that had already been subjected two three different public hearings, and that their plans should therefore be subject to minor subdivision review, which does not require submission of a concept plan, rather than the “major subdivision” process that does.
“The concept had already been reviewed. Public input had been taken, and (there was) a final outcome,” Blackmer said. “We thought we were done. We hired management companies, architects, engineers, and started creating the documentation for a site plan.”
Brockman said the law is clear.
“The state law is pretty clear that if you have to extend infrastructure, which would be water and sewer lines, or extend a public road that you’re considered a major subdivision, and we don’t really have any authority to exempt somebody like that from being a major subdivision,” she said.
Planner Seth Rivard agreed there is indeed some redundancy between the CUP and concept plan processes, but state law and local ordinances require that both processes take place before a site plan is approved. “If you get a conditional use permit, you are kind of overlapping this concept plan stage, but there is nothing that gives us the authority to say, ‘You’ve done one so you can skip the other.’”
Rivard added that there were additional steps in the concept plan process that were not covered by the CUP process. “One of the big elements we are missing is that there is a generic calculation we have to run to see if you need a traffic impact study.”
Planner Steve Barney expressed support for the project but emphasized the importance of each stage of the approval process. “We think this is a great project. They are proposing some really innovative things, and we’re ready to do whatever we can to help expedite the process. We simply ask that the applicant go through the required steps in the process.”
But Corum and Blackmer argue that the public will learn nothing new from the additional public hearing on their concept plan. They say the only effect will be that Morgans Grove’s plans, which they say have already been held up for over a year, will be pushed out at least five more months.
“The only thing it does is push the project out at least five months without a single change to the application,” Blackmer said. “After three full vettings by three different agencies at three public hearings, they want us to go back and do this whole thing over again.”
Last week, Corum and Blackmer went before the County Commission asking it to create a body of citizens, analogous to the Board of Zoning Appeals, where planning staff decisions could be appealed.
The Commission voted down the proposal unanimously.
President Patsy Noland said such a board would only add another layer of government. “I just think it’s another level of bureaucracy, if you will, that will only complicate the matter at this point,” she said.
Pellish agreed, but said he was frustrated that the project was not moving forward faster.
“(At the time of the rezoning hearing,) comments were made by everybody who looked at the project that this was a good project, a worthwhile project. And that this was a prime example of how, if you pursued it with a CUP, you could get it done and get it done quickly. And here we are in October 2012 and not a darn thing has happened, and that’s wrong,” he said. “This is the type of thing that discourages business from coming into Jefferson County.”