Zoning Update Moves to Council
The Elkins Planning Commission officially presented city council with its proposed update to city zoning laws in June, capping seven years of work by commissioners. State code stipulates several additional steps council must now follow before the new zoning ordinance can become law. These include a public comment period and two public hearings. The earliest date on which the ordinance could become law would be August 18.
The Planning Commission has held about 50 noticed, public meetings on this topic since 2015. The commission has also held three open houses to collect public input (January 2018, September 2018, and December 2021). As reflected in the commission’s meeting minutes, commissioners carefully considered, and often made changes in response to, every comment or suggestion received at these open houses, in addition to written and verbal comments from the public and from other elected officials.
Council will accept written comments on the proposed ordinance, which should be routed through the Office of the City Clerk, through July 15. On July 26, council will hold a daytime hearing at 1 p.m., followed by an evening hearing on July 28 at 7 p.m. The July 28 hearing will be followed by a regular council meeting, at which the ordinance is scheduled for first reading. As mentioned, the second and final reading is tentatively scheduled for August 18.
Zoning laws regulate how land may be used inside a jurisdiction. These laws divide jurisdictions into sections, or zones, and stipulate the kinds of businesses and housing that are allowed in each of these. Zoning laws also cover topics like where buildings may be situated on a lot and how many accessory buildings (e.g., sheds) are allowed. Other matters that zoning laws might cover include rules for urban livestock and agriculture, as well as requirements for buffer zones between commercial and residential properties.
Elkins zoning laws were first approved in the 1950s and have not been significantly updated since the 1970s. Starting in 2015, the Elkins Planning Commission has been preparing a comprehensive update to the city’s zoning laws. The objectives articulated by the Planning Commission for the update include attracting more personal and commercial investment into the city, encouraging small-scale businesses (including low-impact home businesses in some residential zones) and retail spaces, protecting neighborhood character, and preparing the city for new kinds of businesses that were not on the radar when the city’s current zoning laws were drafted.
Because the city’s zoning laws were so far out of date and, in part, no longer in compliance with state and federal laws and court rulings, the commission elected to start drafting its update from scratch. Some of the biggest changes in the new law would regulate the type, size, and placement of signs; encourage the creative repurposing of former schools and churches, which can be difficult under current city zoning rules; preserve vital retail space downtown by forbidding the conversion of storefronts into residences; and require “buffers” between commercial areas and residences, such as landscaping or fences.
Legally operated businesses and rental units would be “grandfathered” under the new law. This means that, even if the type of business or style of residence conflicted with those allowed in a particular zone under the new law, these “non-conforming uses” would be allowed to continue, even if the property is sold, unless abandoned for a year or longer. The proposed ordinance includes no design or historic-preservation requirements.
To ensure that the update incorporated proven, effective practices and complied with all applicable state and federal laws, the commission has throughout this process relied on the advice of planning and legal professionals from the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic, a program of the West Virginia University College of Law. Elkins is one of 20 West Virginia communities that clinic staffers are currently assisting with zoning ordinances at no cost.
Under the process stipulated by state law, planning commissions proposing new zoning ordinances must do by creating a document referred to as a Study and Report on Zoning. This document includes analysis of current conditions and an explanation of why changes to zoning laws are needed. The report then includes two appendices, one containing the proposed new ordinance and one containing the proposed new zoning map.
For more information and to download the Study and Report on Zoning (including the proposed zoning ordinance and map), visit: www.cityofelkinswv.com/zoning-update.