Buckhannon (West Virginia) Planning Commission discusses zoning ordinance, recommends that Council votes down Airbnb rental request amendment

The Record Delta - May 20-2024 - Noah Jeffries

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. (WV News) — The Buckhannon City Planning Commission held a special meeting Monday to discuss a request for the consideration to amend a zoning ordinance to include Airbnb rentals in the R-1, Single Family Residential District.

The request came from Megan Smith, who was looking for a way to utilize a cabin on her property that is not being used.

West Virginia one of three states with federal broadband plan approval

The Parkersburg News and Sentinel - Apr 26, 2024 - Steven Allen Adams

CHARLESTON — Nearly one year after the federal government awarded West Virginia more than $1.2 billion for broadband expansion, West Virginia was one of three states whose plan to implement that expansion was approved.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) approved West Virginia’s Volume II Initial Proposal for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Kansas and Nevada’s plans were also approved.

Approval of the BEAD plan means West Virginia can begin drawing down the $1.2 billion in funding the state was awarded last June through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which was signed into law in 2021 and negotiated by U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“This means West Virginia is another step closer to using our $1.2 billion towards efforts to better-connect homes, business, and classrooms across the state,” Capito said in a statement Thursday. “It’s no surprise to me that West Virginia came out ahead of so many other states that have more personnel because it’s hard to compete with the dedication of Governor (Jim) Justice’s team.”

“I’m just tickled to death. We’ve been pushing the living daylights out for this,” Manchin said Thursday during a virtual conference call with press. “We’ve really got to be connected … If we don’t get broadband now, we’re never going to get it.”

The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $42 billion in funding for the BEAD program. States could begin submitting their BEAD programs as of last July, but no funding could be distributed until those plans were approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The state Department of Economic Development had already been working on its BEAD plan prior to last year’s award. States had 180 days to submit their initial proposals. According to the Volume II proposal, the state’s goal is to expand universal broadband access to non-served and under-served parts of the state by 2029, with speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

The state Office of Broadband began its pre-application period for BEAD-funded grants on March 18, setting a deadline of Friday, March 17.

“The pre-application phase in West Virginia will allow applicants to submit information to demonstrate their eligibility and capacity to compete for grants to expand broadband infrastructure to Target Locations in the state using BEAD funding,” according to the Office of Broadband. “This will streamline the application process and review of proposed projects, which will take place later in 2024.”

Capito praised Justice, the state Department of Economic Development, and the Office of Broadband for being proactive to complete its applications and reports in order to more quickly receive BEAD funding.

“I thank (the Office of Broadband) for their tireless work on their plans to make sure these funds are able to be used properly and efficiently,” Capito said. “While there is still a long road ahead to getting more West Virginians connected, we are well on our way with today’s announcement. I look forward to continuing to help our state in any way that I can during this multi-year process.”

Of the three states approved for BEAD-funded projects, West Virginia’s $1.2 billion allotment was the largest. Manchin said the large amount is needed to help overcome the state’s geographical disadvantages in expanding broadband.

“With the amount of money we put towards broadband connectivity and also the conditions we have in mountainous states as far as the higher cost, they recognize that we don’t have the massive population centers,” Manchin said. “Our people are spread out among rural West Virginia. Getting that implemented is imperative.”

Fairmont City Planner offers changes to make vacant property acquisition easier

Times WV - Mar 14, 2024 - Esteban Fernandez

FAIRMONT — Fairmont’s Planning and Development Department hopes to streamline the way the city sells vacant property.

Planning Director Shae Strait delivered a report Tuesday to city council on the findings and conclusions of an Ad Hoc Committee that had been tasked with discussing and investigating ways to improve the city’s process when it comes to dealing with reclaimed property.

“We do want to get property back into productive reuse, in a manner that is beneficial for the city, for the community and for potential developers,” Strait said. “We also want there to be more confidence from the public about the process and I believe the recommendation we’ve gotten from this ad hoc committee will accomplish both of those goals.”

The report states that out of 69 properties in the city’s inventory, 49 of them are recommended for sale. They would have to be greenlit for sale by ordinance, but it could potentially be done in bulk. Eleven properties are not recommended for sale for future development project opportunities. The city has offloaded 1 in 5 vacant properties, a rate Strait considers not bad for what is a highly informal process of selling off vacant property.

The proposed process would formalize much of that work. It would place information on what properties are available through an online map, making it more accessible. Strait hopes this more streamlined process will improve the rate of vacant properties the city has offloaded, but he is realistic. The City won’t get rid of all its vacant property overnight.

The report’s primary recommendation is to create a clear application process that will provide the public with the necessary information to purchase property the city owns. A sample application form provided with the report as an example, asks questions such as any experience an applicant has with property renovation, development or new construction. It also asks what the intended use of the property is and asks for detailed information such as estimated budget or job creation, if it’s a business applying for a vacant property. It also asks if there are any outstanding fees or liens with the City of Fairmont, or if the applicant has ever owned property that was demolished or razed.

Purchasing would be broken down into the following steps. Application, review by city departments, decision by City Manager, purchase agreement drafting, title opinion, settlement statement and finally, closing and recording.

Strait said part of the motivation for the recommendations was a desire for greater transparency on what the city is doing with its vacant properties. The current process the city uses to offload vacant property it owns is informal, word of mouth is how information about which property is for sale reaches potential buyers.

Although the City is more than willing to share information on a property it owns, it might not even be common knowledge that a property is even up for sale in the first place. Further, the city can also auction off property but that makes it difficult to ensure the new owner is community minded or has plans to redevelop or invest in the property.

Councilmember Gia Deasy agreed with the need for increased transparency. As demolition of blighted property took place, misinformation proliferated as residents asked questions about what would happen next regarding a piece of property.

“I think as we got more aggressive on demolitions, got more publicity for demolitions, of course the public wonders like, ‘OK, what is really going on,’” Deasy said. “So it was good criticism, ended up with us doing something a little more organized and I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing for everyone.”

There’s benefits for the City as well. Deasy, who was on the Ad Hoc Committee, said the application gathers every important piece of information in one place and makes it easier for the City to conduct its assessment. Different city departments don’t have to hunt down pieces of information that might be scattered in multiple places.

Deasy used her experience serving on the Zoning Board of Appeals as an example. She’s run into situations where someone looks at a vacant lot across the street from their house, and thinks it will make for a great standalone garage. However, city code dictates garages need to be adjacent to houses. Since the application asks for intended use, every department will be able to have that information in one place, rather than have that information collected by one department but not have it passed on.

Deasy expects the recommendation may potentially be adopted in about a month. She said Council is waiting for the new City Manager to be seated before approving any changes. Mayor Anne Bolyard said Council needs to study the report before offering any resolution to implement the change.

“I think right now we’re just disseminating and processing what we were given,” Bolyard said. “But we do plan to not let this languish for months.”

In the meantime, Bolyard is breaking out the highlighters and tabs before diving into the report.

Strait said establishing a more streamlined process for offloading the city’s vacant property is important because it restores property to tax rolls, but also removes incurred tax liability. The city must mow and generally maintain the vacant properties, which means taxpayer money goes into upkeep for these empty places. This eats up money that could otherwise be used for sidewalks, or parks or police equipment.

Once transferred into an owners’ hands, vacant property can be a springboard for Fairmont’s future wellbeing.

“If somebody does build a new house on it, for example, or a new business,” Strait said, “Hopefully that’ll raise adjacent property values and encourage further investment in the neighborhoods and drive interest in this kind of renaissance that Fairmont is beginning to experience.”

Wheeling Planning Commission Puts AT&T Cell Tower Proposal on Hold

The Intelligencer - Mar 12, 2024 - Eric Ayres

WHEELING – Members of the Wheeling Planning Commission took no action Monday night following a public hearing on a special permit request for the installation of an AT&T cell tower on the hillside above Woodsdale.

Instead of voting on the request for a special use permit on Monday night, members agreed to table the matter in order to give them more time to review information about the proposal. Officials also indicated that they would like more planning commission members to weigh in on the proposal, as only a handful of them were available for the public hearing.

In fact, the planning commission barely had a quorum to move forward with Monday night’s regular monthly meeting, as four members were unable to attend. Assistant City Manager Bill Lanham, who had been tied up at another meeting immediately before the 5 p.m. planning commission meeting, was able to join fellow members Bill Schwarz, Dave Palmer and Howard Monroe so the session would have enough members to proceed at around 5:15 p.m.

AT&T requested a special use permit for a new 85-foot cell phone tower near 908 National Road on vacant lots on the hillside adjacent to the parking lot of Augusta Levy Learning Center. Officials noted that the zoning classification for the subject property is C-2, General Commercial. An article in the city’s code titled Wireless Telecommunication Towers and Facilities Regulatory Authority is the ordinance that regulates cell phone towers in the city.

During Monday night’s meeting, Mike Beddow, associate project manager for the engineering firm GPD Group, appeared as an agent on behalf of AT&T.

“The site was chosen to provide the best coverage capacity relief for the area,” Beddow said. “There are a number of towers in the area, and AT&T depends on them.”

Beddow noted that there is a nearby hillside tower to the west of Wheeling University that is very close to capacity.

“Within the next several months or certainly within a year it is projected that tower will be over capacity,” he said. “So this site is primarily to relieve that tower and just provide just a little additional capacity and kind of fill in the area.”

If the new cell tower is approved, there will be some additional coverage benefits to the area, Beddow said.

“Neighborhoods to the north and northeast will see some improvement in coverage,” he said.

Under the city’s code as written, a cell tower of this nature would not be permitted at this location, which is why the company is seeking a special use permit before moving forward with a number of other steps that need to be taken before all hurdles are clear.

Brian Tregoning, municipal manager for the Center for Municipal Solutions, serves as a consultant for the city of Wheeling on these matters.

“As far as the Center for Municipal Solutions is concerned, they have met everything that they need to meet to prove that they need this tower,” Tregoning said. “They’ve met the minimum height necessary.”

Tregoning noted that AT&T chose to request the special use permit from the city before investing funds into clearing other procedural hurdles needed to get the tower built.

“There’s multiple things that still need to be submitted, so essentially this is conditional,” Tregoning said, noting that there still needs to be structural and geotechnical plan approvals, a removal bond put in place, proof of proper insurance and a number of other steps before AT&T can proceed. “All of these things still need to be turned in and are yet to be reviewed by us and the city for final approval of the special use permit and/or the building permit in order to move forward, and that’s where we sit right now.”

Woodsdale residents in previous years have united in protesting against proposed projects on the hillsides overlooking residential neighborhoods. Plans for a proposed development on another hillside above Woodsdale was quashed a few years ago after residents rallied against it.

Wheeling City Councilman Jerry Sklavounakis, who represents Ward 4 and the neighborhoods around Woodsdale, and Councilman Ty Thorngate, who represents Ward 5 and the neighborhoods around Edgwood, both attended Monday night’s meeting, but did not speak. During last week’s city council meeting, Sklavounakis spoke out and encouraged interested residents to attend the public hearing on the proposed cell tower, which would be installed in close proximity to the dividing line between Ward 4 and Ward 5.

B.J. Delbert, Wheeling Building and Planning Director, noted that more than 300 notices about Monday’s public hearing were sent out to residences, businesses and public entities in close proximity to the proposed cell tower site, and notice of the hearing was publicly advertised. However, only a small handful of people showed up at the meeting, and only three spoke during the hearing – all speaking against the proposal.

“How close to the schools is this?” asked Dr. Frank Borsuk of Woodsdale, noting that Augusta Levy Learning Center is right there, while Woodsdale Elementary School is nearby – as are other schools, churches and residential areas. “Scientific literature says that it’s harmful to children.”

Borsuk said radio frequency or RF emissions are a health concern, particularly with 5G cellular networks or systems that use greater non-ionizing radio frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Even the industry says that they are looking at the liability of being too close to schools,” Borsuk said. “So I’m against the towers. Your decision is going to affect children and grandchildren as long as that tower is there.”

Lori and Alan Starkey reside on Memminger Avenue, a residential street that lies directly east of the proposed tower site.

“I live right below it,” Lori Starkey said. “There wasn’t anything brought up about how it affects neighborhoods. There are families down there.”

Alan Starkey asserted that there was “big money” involved in cellular phone service providers like AT&T and the telecommunications business.

“You’ll find very little information about the dangers because so much money is involved,” he said. “The dangers of EMF radiation are real. I was in the Air Force for years, and they briefed us on it all the time. I know that it’s harmful, and I don’t want to live underneath a tower, basically.”

Officials indicated that the Federal Communications Commission regulates telecommunication systems and monitors RF emissions.

“AT&T has limits that are the standard for maximum permissible exposure,” Beddow said of the emissions. “AT&T designs to the lower limit of what is actually allowable, because you’ve got residences in the area and people who may not be aware that there are radio emissions coming from the tower. We meet all of those requirements. AT&T does do studies to determine what those radiation levels will be. They’re very careful about what power level they’re running at with their antennas to make sure they meet all FCC guidelines.”

Beddow said AT&T inquired about installing an antenna on the buildings at either Augusta Levy or on Springhill Suites, but both were not interested in allowing them to do so.

“I do not have any argument that there is a need nor that you’ve done the proper diligence to find the best location,” Monroe said, noting that there was some concern shared about “screening” of such a tower or trying to camouflage it so it does not stand out on the hillside. Officials noted that cell towers designed to look like trees are often more distracting and noticeable than simple gray towers.

“I’d like to see more of an RF emissions study – the modeling of how RF emissions are going to go,” Monroe said. “The concerns of the citizens should at least be given some weight here.”

Although Beddow indicated that the tower would not need to be lighted, city officials indicated that they would like to see FCC approval to make sure no light will be required on the tower.

Commissioners agreed to table the matter to give them more time to look into questions about the proposal. The issue is expected to be brought back to the floor during the next Wheeling Planning Commission meeting in April.

Parkersburg Planning Commission forwards manufactured home ordinance

The Parkersburg News and Sentinel - Feb 17, 2024 - Evan Bevins

PARKERSBURG — The city’s Municipal Planning Commission gave its seal of approval Friday to an ordinance expanding the areas of the city in which manufactured homes can be placed.

City code only allows manufactured homes — structures built at another location and moved to the site in two pieces, where they are put together — in multi-family apartment residential and neighborhood business zones.

People can construct them elsewhere if granted a variance by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

The ordinance, if approved on two readings by Parkersburg City Council, would expand the zones where manufactured homes are permitted without a variance to residential areas zoned for medium density, high density and single family dwellings as well as general business (B-2) zones.

“Requests for manufactured housing are probably the most requests we get for new construction,” City Planner Connor LaVelle said.

Manufactured houses are generally less expensive than traditional site-built structures, LaVelle said. Making it easier to build them in the city is seen by officials as a way to address the area’s housing shortage and provide more opportunities for people to build on lots where the city’s Urban Renewal Authority has demolished dilapidated structures.

“We want these lots to be usable,” Code Enforcement Director Andy Nestor said. “And I think this helps accomplish that.”

A distinction often made between manufactured and modular homes is that manufactured homes can be moved. But that is not what officials are envisioning with the proposed ordinance.

In addition to meeting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s manufactured housing and safety standards, manufactured homes would also have to comply with appearance standards including minimum street frontage (28 feet), width (24 feet) and roof pitch. They would have to be new units, not moved from somewhere else, and have permanent utility connections and foundations. Single-wide trailers would not be permitted.

Nestor said manufactured homes have come a long way since those were the most common format.

“They’re a lot safer, a lot better-built homes,” he said.

Planning Commission Vice President Eric Gumm said approving the ordinance is a “reflection of reality.”

“I think in cases like this, it’s almost as important to know what it isn’t as what it is,” he said.

The ordinance was forwarded to council on an 8-0 vote, with three members absent.

The commission also unanimously reelected Gumm as vice president and Charlie Matthews as president.

Cochran addresses planning commission on Ethics opinion request

The Journal - Jan 25, 2024 - Toni Milbourne

CHARLES TOWN — Jefferson County Assistant Prosecutor Nathan Cochran addressed the county’s planning commission Wednesday evening regarding a directive given to him by the county commission to seek an advisory opinion from the West Virginia Ethics Commission.

On Dec. 21, the commission, in a 5-0 vote, directed Cochran to seek an opinion when members of the public questioned a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act by subcommittees of the planning commission.

Cochran told commissioners last week that he had not done as they directed, because he wanted to speak with the planning commission members to get the “facts” of the allegations. Cochran did so despite the county commission, specifically in its directive, stating that the planning commission was not to be involved.

Despite their initial vote, county commissioners gave Cochran until Wednesday to provide them with an update on their request for the Ethics advisory opinion solicitation.

At a special meeting of the planning commission, Cochran asked specific questions of President Mike Shepp about subcommittees of the group.

“It’s too much to go through every fact I have gathered via minutes,” Cochran said, “but I want to run some facts by you.”

He then asked Shepp if all committees were currently inactive. He gave specific examples of three committees: budget, ordinance rewrite and solar amendment. Cochran went on to ask, before receiving an answer to his first question, whether at any time, there was a quorum of planning commission members at subcommittee meetings. Shepp confirmed that to be accurate.

Cochran also asked Shepp to confirm that there are no agendas and no minutes at the subcommittee meetings, because there is not a quorum, and no actions are taken. Shepp also confirmed that was true.

“Any proposed changes have to come back to the planning commission and have a public hearing,” Shepp added, referring to the Ordinance Rewrite Committee.

Shepp also confirmed, in answer to an inquiry from Cochran, that no decisions are voted on at a subcommittee level.

Cochran asked other questions regarding timing of meetings to confirm that currently, no subcommittees are meeting. He did not, however, address past meetings that were not noticed to the public, which was the initial cause for an Ethics opinion.

It was following concerns by members of the public on these subcommittee meetings, which were not noticed, and no members of the public were allowed to attend, that the county commission made its Dec. 21 vote to seek the advisory opinion on whether subcommittees must follow the West Virginia Open Meetings Act.

When asked if he had read the act, Shepp indicated that it had been a while since he had read it. He did not recall reading in the act, he said, that subcommittees had to follow the law. He indicated that he followed the direction of the attorney, (Cochran), and had no other comment until he could read the Open Meetings Act.

Commissioner Jack Hefestay also indicated that he had not recalled reading the Open Meetings Act, where it referenced that subcommittees must abide by the rules.

In reaching out to the West Virginia Ethics Commission regarding the issue, The Journal was directed to the West Virginia Code §6-9A-2. Definitions: (7) “Public agency’ means any administrative or legislative unit of state, county or municipal government, including any department, division, bureau, office, commission, authority, board, public corporation, section, committee, subcommittee or any other agency or subunit of the foregoing, authorized by law to exercise some portion of executive or legislative power. The term ‘public agency’ does not include courts created by article eight of the West Virginia Constitution or the system of family law masters created by article four, chapter forty-eight-a of this code.”

This section of the Open Meetings Act defines who is required to follow the law. In addition, under the “Frequently Asked Questions” segment of the Open Meeting Act on the W.Va. Ethics Commission website, it specifically addresses whether subcommittees, ad hoc committees, etc. must comply.

“Are committee meetings subject to the Open Meetings Act? Do committee meetings need to be noticed? Yes. All subunits of a governing body, regardless of size, must follow the Open Meetings Act. This includes regular, standing and ad hoc committees,” the FAQ shows.

Cochran indicated to the county commission that he would follow its directive and seek the advisory opinion after his meeting with the planning commission. There has been no public posting of his update to commissioners, as of Wednesday, that was required, but it is an item that may have a follow-up on the commission’s next regular meeting agenda to keep the public informed.