Like its Highland neighbor, one of Bath County’s greatests assets is its scenic mountain ranges and the natural resources they provide.
It also has some of the highest winds in Virginia and is therefore attractive to industrial wind energy companies. Its vistas atop the surrounding ridge lines make it attractive to other kinds of development as well.
Bath planner Miranda Redinger is urging the planning commission to seriously consider some sort of ridge top protection ordinance.
The comprehensive plan and rewrite of Bath’s land use regulations were the main topics of Monday’s commission meeting, but Redinger took the opportunity to stress the ordinance idea once more. With wind energy development pressure in Highland County and nearby West Virginia, Redinger stressed the time is now for Bath County to enact something that protects its ridges.
“It’s important to take a position. I’m not sure a lot of people would be in favor of building along ridgetops, but developers are sure calling me about it. That’s why we want to get something in (the land use regulations),” she said.
Redinger was referring to a call she received from a resort and vacation home developer she believed was East West Partners, though she wasn’t sure, which wanted to construct second homes on Bath County’s ridges.
Commission chair Mike Grist said he and Redinger probably don’t agree on what kind of ordinance should be written for ridgetop protection, and more research is needed. One of the biggest hurdles is defining exactly what a ridgetop is, said Redinger.
She has asked for Nature Conservancy director Brad Kreps to supply an elevation map so the commission could have a visual of the lay of the land.
According to the state, a ridgetop is defined as anything at an elevation of 2,000 feet or higher, she explained.
Grist said he wanted to be more specific, and agreed planners need to see a map. Last month, he said he would be opposed to an aggressive approach to ridgetop protection, such as actively rezoning land. He agrees something needs to control development along ridges, but does not want to restrict property rights, he said.
Defining a ridgetop can be tricky, says Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy. In 1993, Rappahannock considered a ridgetop protection ordinance following several years of research, and later decided against it. “It depends on the topography,” he said. “According to the state, you figure your setback from measuring the peak of a ridge, and because we have some relatively flat areas on our mountain tops, it didn’t prevent development and did not hide the house from either side of the mountain.”
Instead, Rappahannock passed a steep acreage restriction in 1995 stating that subdividing property was limited on land with a slope of more than 25 percent. “In other words, on a 100-acre lot, you would basically get one house,” he said.
McCarthy acknowledged it was a tough issue because people want viewshed protected and property rights protected at the same time. “It’s a strong push-pull,” he said.
On the other hand, he recognized how ridgetop development could negatively affect tourism, which, like in Bath, is a main industry in Rappahannock.
Redinger is a strong advocate for ridgetop protection and feels it is a critical issue for Bath County residents and landowners, she said. “I think public opinion is pretty united against ridgetop development,” she said. “The type of development we need in this county isn’t going to occur along ridgetops. We need affordable housing development for the working class people, not some luxury retirement community (like the company that called her),” she said.
Redinger is reviewing Albemarle County’s mountain top protection ordinance to get ideas for how to guide Bath in creating its own. She feels planners largely support a ridgetop protection ordinance as long as it does not overly restrict private property rights.
Grist agrees that is his main concern. “This can span from one extreme to the other. I think there needs to be something in the land use regulations to control development because right now there is no control, but the worst extreme would be no development over 2,000 feet,” he said. Grist does not support extreme measures that could mean property owners could not build a house on a mountain top, develop pasture land or harvest timber.
A less extreme approach might require a landowner to apply for conditional use permits for certain activities, he added. “We have to look at the infringement on personal property owners,” he said.
Grist expectes the comprehensive plan to be finalized no later than six months from now and to have a ridgetop protection ordinance proposed in eight months for citizens to review.
Albemarle County defines a “ridge area” as 100 vertical feet, or 250 horizontal feet of a crest (highest part of a hill or mountain range), whichever is more restrictive.
It outlines six purposes for its ordinance, including public safety, and protecting viewshed, water quality, and biological diversity.
The plan points out mountain top developments are less accessible for emergency services personnel and the slopes can be unstable. In addition, it states that mountains provide important services in collecting, storing and filtering viable sources of water. And, less development means more habitat for the area’s diverse wildlife.
Albemarle’s ordinance restricts building roads on critical slopes, and prohibits residential construction in areas within 200 feet of a stream or river. There is also a height restriction stating that any structure built on a ridgetop cannot exceed 35 feet, or the height of an adjacent crest, whichever is more restrictive.
While the plan lays out a number of other limitations, it allows property owners to apply for waivers subject to approval of the program authority or planning commission.
“If we don’t have anything in place, that leaves us vulnerable,” Redinger said. “We have to set standards appropriate for the county, and we have to look at an elevation map before we make any determinations.”
Bath will hold its next planning commission meeting Tuesday Feb. 20 instead of on its normal meeting date of every fourth Monday due to a scheduling conflict. The meeting is at 7 p.m. in room 115 of the courthouse.
By Amanda Isley “¢ Staff writer
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