Five months after Liberty University withdrew a rezoning request for the New London Airport in Forest, the Bedford County Board of Supervisors is drafting a zoning ordinance amendment to create an airport district, a first for the county.
Following a closed session during its Aug. 12 meeting, the board unanimously passed a resolution directing staff to draft the amendment creating an airport district and to initiate zoning map amendments for the New London Airport and Smith Mountain Lake Airport.
The New London Airport, located off New London Road about 3 miles south of U.S. 460, currently is zoned AP (Agricultural Rural Preserve district), and the Smith Mountain Lake Airport is zoned R-1 (Low Density Residential).
“We actually don’t have any rezoning for airports,” said District 7 Supervisor Kevin Willis. “We needed to address this and have a zoning ordinance in place.”
An ordinance in Bath County establishing an airport district defined it as “areas that, due to the operation of aircraft, are exposed to excessive noise, are within the aircraft approach and departure areas, and are exposed to a greater risk of aircraft crashes.”
The vote Aug. 12 to create an airport district followed a closed session that, according to the board’s agenda, concerned the New London Airport and was “pertaining to actual or probable litigation, where such consultation or briefing in open meeting would adversely affect the negotiating or litigating posture of the public body.”
The agenda defined “probable litigation” as litigation that has been specifically threatened or on which the public body or its legal counsel has a reasonable basis to believe will be commenced by or against a known party.
In March, Liberty University submitted a request for 467.83 acres in Forest — which includes the 131-acre New London Airport at 1114 Wheels Drive — to be rezoned from AP to PCD (Planned Commercial Development).
Bedford County planner Jordan Mitchell in March said AP zoning is for land primarily used as farm, woodlands or scattered residential development and is designed to allow areas to maintain their rural state. A PCD zoning allows for a variety of land uses while also protecting surrounding property.
LU was requesting the rezoning to develop a general aviation facility for its School of Aeronautics on the property, which LU purchased in 2015 for $1.8 million. The total 467 acres has a combined tax value of about $4.2 million, according to information from the Bedford County geographic information system website.
“The purpose of the proposed improvements is to allow the airport to better serve the growing needs of the community and the Liberty University School of Aeronautics,” the rezoning application from LU said. It also said LU does not intend to continue drag racing on the property, which ceased in 2017, if the rezoning and special-use permit applications are approved.
The 467-acre property is located off U.S. 460 between New London and Bethel Church roads. Properties owned by LU surrounding the airport currently are either undeveloped or agricultural in nature. Those surrounding properties within a 1-mile radius of the parcel are zoned AP or R-1 and include agricultural, residential and undeveloped land.
The proposal submitted by LU in March said the majority of the planned development will be constructed on land that has not been developed.
“With 468 acres, the property is somewhat buffered naturally from the neighboring properties,” the LU application said. “The parcels are intended to be developed with certain buffering due to the size of the property.”
The proposal said the development would be constructed in three phases. During the first phase aircraft hangars, an airport terminal and a maintenance building would be constructed, and the airport’s parking area and aircraft aprons, where planes are parked, would be expanded.
The second phase would include the construction of additional hangars, a fueling station, classroom space for its School of Aviation and Unmanned Aircraft System School and a second, longer runway, according to the application.
The final phase would include the construction of additional hangars or commercial buildings for aviation-related businesses. The project, if approved, is expected to be completed by 2037, according to LU.
“The planned improvements have the potential to bring more aviation-related businesses and students to the airfield, as well as allow existing businesses to expand and operate in a more efficient manner,” LU’s proposal said. “The project furthers the purpose of the Zoning Ordinance by facilitating the creation of a convenient, attractive and harmonious community; facilitating the provision of transportation through a private airport and encouraging economic development activities that provide desirable employment and enlarge the tax base.”
The request was scheduled for public hearing during the Bedford Planning Commission’s March 19 meeting, but LU withdrew the rezoning request before the meeting. LU later issued a statement saying it planned to hold meetings with residents in the area to discuss plans for the property, but no meetings have yet been announced.
New London Road resident Doug Pearson said he attended the March 19 Planning Commission meeting and intended to speak against the rezoning request but was met at the door by Zody, who told him — as well as other residents that came to the meeting — that the request had been withdrawn and the matter would not be discussed.
“I should have stayed and at least spoke my mind during the public comment period,” Pearson said. “It’s looking like they are bypassing a public hearing altogether.”
Willis said the zoning amendment draft for an airport district — like any change to the county ordinances — must go before the planning commission and be approved by the board of supervisors. Any change in the zoning of both the Smith Mountain Lake and New London airports also must go before the planning commission and board of supervisors.
“There really isn’t a way to expedite the process,” Willis said. “The public will have an opportunity to speak on this. This is just the first step in the process, which I hope will ultimately lead us to something all parties can live with.”
A public hearing on the rezoning will be held by the Bedford County Planning Commission on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Jefferson Forest High School Auditorium.