After more than two years of discussions, Liberty University and the Lynchburg City Council finally came to an agreement on a new institutional zoning district that will return Liberty’s property rights to its 1991 standing.
Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne said that Liberty and the Lynchburg City Council reached a point in 2010 where they started to think that there was a better way to handle the issue of property rights. During that time, there was much frustration over the conditional use permits (CUP) that Liberty or any university had to obtain every time it wanted to build.
According to Payne, the Liberty property was originally annexed by the county in 1976 before going through a zoning process that changed it from a residential district to a mixture of industrial and commercial, making Liberty a B-5 District (General Business District).
“The initial change was triggered back in ‘91, when school uses were no longer considered by-right developments within a B-5 zoning district,” Mayor Michael Gillette said. “That meant that schools needed to secure CUPs in order to build certain types of buildings.”
Prior to 1991, Liberty was still required to get CUPs for projects such as football stadiums and the Vines Center, but according to Payne, the post-1991 changes only broadened oversight to things such as academic buildings as well as other buildings, which were not previously required to have a CUP.
The process of getting a CUP can take somewhere between three to six months, depending on the circumstances and how many issues are raised, according to Payne. Every time Liberty had a project in the works, the university had to come to the city and ask for permission, going through a public process requiring public hearings before both the planning commission and the city council.
According to former General Counsel for Liberty Bill McRorie, city planners wanted more control over the development of land. In order to make that happen, McRorie created CUP, which requires the permit holder to completely satisfy the city’s requirements in order to move forward with a project.
“While the approval is usually granted, it was often subject to (Liberty) spending millions on projects that benefit the city, not necessarily the university,” Falwell said.
A Champion article from March 9, 2010 reported that the city had used CUP to give Liberty a to-do list that would require the university build an estimated $8 million worth of roads, ramps and tunnels in order to increase enrollment.
Payne said that there was concern about the impact of growing colleges on areas that surrounded those campuses, including transportation.
According to Falwell, Liberty had originally sought and received B-5 zoning back in 1977 to avoid these types of permit requirements. Since the 1991 change, Liberty has been steadily pushing to get its rights back.
“The concept is that what happens on the inside of a campus might not impact the surrounding community, and when it doesn’t, the organization should have freedom to develop with less restriction,” Gillette said.
According to Gillette, it took a couple of iterations, but Liberty was able to obtain a zoning change that satisfied city and institutional needs.
“We worked together on it for over two years,” Payne said. “We actually took one proposal forward that Liberty was not happy with, and we went back and spent another year revising that to get something that we all felt was mutually beneficial,” Payne said.
Lynchburg Councilman Jeff Helgeson, one of the supporters for the new zoning district, expressed his position of standing behind the university.
“As an alum of Liberty myself and your councilman, I fully support the mission of the university,” Helgeson said.
Payne said that the rights will be fully reinstated once Liberty applies for the new zoning designation.
According to Gillette, the new ordinance effectively allows schools to build in B-5 zoned areas with only those restrictions that apply to all B-5 development.
“Liberty University is grateful to the city for working with the university to resolve this important issue,” Falwell said. “I agree with the city manager’s recent statement that Liberty and the Lynchburg City government are enjoying the best relationship between the two entities in our history.”