By Debbie Adams
Truth be told, sometimes government meetings can be a little dull, especially if you add in the words “zoning” and “ordinance.”
Not so at the “A Penny for Your Thoughts” community meeting organized by the Vinton Planning and Zoning Department and held at the Charles R. Hill Community Center on September 9. It should become the model for all future community meetings involving planning, zoning, and even economic development.
The meeting did not involve merely watching a PowerPoint presentation on proposed changes to the Town of Vinton Zoning Ordinance, or listening to speeches, or examining display boards. It was highly interactive, informative, succinct, and even entertaining, in reviewing the highlights of the revised ordinance as attendees circulated through 10 exhibits.
Citizens were invited to sign up for one of two tours, which began in the parking lot and then finished up indoors.
Each citizen attending was given six pennies to vote on six questions concerning the Zoning Ordinance—questions that the staff considers somewhat “contentious” and would like to receive public input on before bringing the finished document before Town Council for adoption.
According to Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Nathan McClung, who spearheaded organizing and facilitating the interactive meeting, the staff has been working for about three years to meaningfully revise and update zoning ordinances in the Town of Vinton to “put more balance back in the regulations.”
McClung, Planning and Zoning Director Anita McMillan, and Planning and Zoning Coordinator Julie Tucei have deliberated, collaborated, and strategized on the revisions with the Vinton Planning Commission, residents, business owners, and other professional organizations over those months.
They are about to wrap up the process and present the updated ordinance to Vinton Town Council for approval. The public meeting on September 9 was one last effort to solicit public input, although community input had been invited on previous occasions.
“A Penny for Your Thoughts” exhibits covered Temporary Signage, Off-Street Parking, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) layouts, Residential and Business Setbacks, Sign Measurements, Central Business District heights and setbacks, Landscaping regulations, Homestays, ADU regulations, and miscellaneous New and Revised Uses.
One section of the ordinance deals with commercial signage—one of the prickliest and most frequently encountered issues that the department must deal with, especially temporary signage regulations. Staff hopes that the updated ordinance will promote “a greater balance between effective business marketing and efficient enforcement strategies.”
Staff set up a demonstration of acceptable temporary and permanent business signage on the lawn of the Community Center. McClung explained that the trend in local government nowadays is to “be more relaxed” concerning signage regulations. The exhibit included banner, window, and free-standing signs. The group talked about feather signs and even “dancing” signs and how they could be distracting to motorists just from their movements or by infringing on the right-of-way.
The staff said they frequently get calls complaining about “too many signs.”
Town Councilman Keith Liles, who joined the first tour, emphasized his concern that stringent regulations could hinder or discourage small businesses.
The next exhibit was designed to highlight the issue of off-street parking requirements. Apparently in the ’80s and ’90s, governments arbitrarily set parking space regulations based on number of employees or number of seats. The proposed ordinance is less restrictive and based on more universal parking requirements by square footage which will mandate fewer parking spaces. This issue has stormwater implications as well, dealing with a reduction in impervious surfaces.
In another outdoor exhibit, areas of the parking lot were taped off to indicate the size of acceptable Accessory Dwelling Units—another hot topic in planning and zoning. ADUs are independent housing units created within single-family homes or on their lots to accommodate many different needs. Some of the potential benefits of ADUs are to give elderly populations the capability to age in place, to provide a secondary income for homeowners, or to provide long-term cost savings for public utilities through limiting greater urban sprawl.
The maximum size of an ADU is currently 800 square feet or 40 percent of the size of the existing home—whichever is less. An ADU must be on the same water, sewer, and electrical system as the existing home. The property owner must reside on-site, either in the principal dwelling or in the ADU.
Staff wants to encourage ADUs and permit them by right in certain residential zoning districts. The town will need to decide whether these ADUs can be rented out.
A related issue—homestays—was also included in the exhibits. Homestays are short-term rental units. The intention of regulations involving homestays is to preserve the residential character of neighborhoods in Vinton.
Another exhibit demonstrated business setbacks of 25 feet currently in the ordinance, and the 15-foot setback required in the revised ordinance. Reducing setbacks would bring older homes converting to businesses into compliance, allow development closer to the sidewalk, and foster a pedestrian-friendly environment for current and future development in Residential-Business districts.
Once back inside the Community Center, attendees were invited to use their pennies to vote “yes” or “no” on the statement, “Temporary signage should be allowed without a permitting process as long as all organizations and individuals follow the same set of rules.”
The second vote was on the statement, “Maximum parking requirements are an effective way to reduce stormwater run-off and reduce the amount of large unused parking areas throughout the town.”
One of the indoor exhibits presented an aerial view of the central business district with a revamped “Upwards” game indicating heights of buildings in the Central Business District in Vinton. The statement to vote on was, “Yes or No: Mixed-use buildings with commercial spaces on the first floor and residential units on the upper floors is what I envision for the majority of the future development projects in Vinton’s commercial corridors.”
A proposed revision to the Zoning Ordinance would allow the height limit to be increased from 35 feet to 45 feet (or four stories) in the Central Business District, allowing for greater density with dwelling units being located above retail spaces.
Members of the tour group were invited to design the green space in the parking area in front of an imaginary business to determine their opinion on “The proposed landscaping standards balance the additional costs to developments with the long-term environmental benefits in relation to stormwater management.”
Joy Payne, who owns Vinton Roofing Company in the downtown business district, had specific questions about the landscaping requirements for existing businesses and how cost prohibitive the new requirements may become for small businesses.
The Zoning Ordinance revisions as regards landscaping introduces new and extensive landscaping standards to “increase the town’s aesthetic and environmental context in relation to stormwater management, reducing urban heat island effects, and enhancing public health and safety.”
McClung wrapped up the Zoning Ordinance meeting with a five-minute PowerPoint presentation on other proposed changes to the ordinance related to Research and Development facilities, Pet Daycare and other animal-related facilities, motor vehicle or trailer painting and body repair services, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, and micro-distilleries, large format retail stores and shops, mixed-use buildings, and drive-up facilities, among others.
It is not too late to let your voice be heard on the revisions. The ordinance is in the final stages of review and will be presented to Vinton Town Council at an upcoming council meeting.
More information on these updates can be found on the Town of Vinton Website at: https://www.vintonva.gov/…/Zoning-and-Subdivision.
Contact the Planning and Zoning Department at 983-0605 if you have questions about the pending ordinance revisions.