Mar 9, 2010

Life Liberty & Lynchburg: Controls to cost University millions

by Amanda Sullivan

If the struggle between Liberty University and the City of Lynchburg could be summed up in one word, that word would be “control.” Liberty wants for Lynchburg to relinquish its control of the university’s property rights so that the school can continue to grow. However, the City of Lynchburg holds tight control by imposing Conditional Use Permits (CUP) on all colleges.

The city has used CUP to give Liberty a to-do list that will require the university to build an estimated $8 million worth of roads, ramps and tunnels in order to increase enrollment beyond 12,000 on-campus students. The construction will raise the cost of student tuition by at least $667 per student. The cost amount to students may increase, as the estimates were completed in 2008 and engineering prices have since risen.

Applying the term “conditional use permit” to a zoning ordinance allows city officials to mandate specific regulations and require public hearings before an organization or institution is allowed to make any adjustments – regardless of how big or small.

“The city planners wanted more control over the development of land, and they didn’t want an owner or developer to have the right to expand and make changes on a piece of property, and so they came up with something called a Conditional Use Permit (CUP), where to get any zoning for your piece of property, you had to completely satisfy the city and come to an agreement and negotiate an agreement with the city to get anything …to build at all, to move forward with your project,” General Counsel for Liberty Bill McRorie said.

“While the approval is usually granted, it is always subject to (Liberty) spending millions on projects that benefit the city, not necessarily the university,” Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. said.

CUP requirements have already mandated projects such as phase 1 of the Regent’s Parkway road, the turning lane near Doc’s Diner, improvements to the bridge of 460 and various sidewalks. These completed projects make up over $2 million. Additional CUP requirements push the total toward $12 million in changes to reach 15,000 students.

The future changes include phase II of Regent’s Parkway, highway ramp improvements by the Wingate, a traffic signal by Doc’s Diner, a roundabout by the Bookstore, to close an at grade crossings for Norfolk Southern railway, another pedestrian tunnel, a two vehicular tunnels and thousands of feet of sidewalks, according to Beaumont.

The $8 million in changes represents only the most recent additions that Liberty will be required to make to stay within CUP compliance once it surpasses 12,000 residential students.

“For Liberty to go from 10,000 (residential students) to 15,000 residential students, CUP requirements will exceed $12 million,” Beaumont said.

Liberty’s B-5 zoning ordinance was changed to include CUP requirements on May 14, 1991, according to the city council minutes. Since that time, Liberty officials have felt the City of Lynchburg has gone overboard with its CUP demands, according to Beaumont. Previously, Liberty’s B-5 zoning district did not include a CUP.

“If you are college or university with more than 100 students located in a B-5 zoning district — a law that was passed in 1991 when LU was the only college in a B-5 district with more than 100 students — you need a CUP to make any improvements to your property,” Falwell said. “Originally, Liberty sought and received B-5 zoning in 1977 to avoid these types of permit requirements.”

”We agree that major projects like football stadiums and basketball arenas do impact traffic on local roads but the B-5 zoning required CUPs for those types of improvements before 1992,” Falwell said. “We think that is reasonable.”

Liberty officials feel that the City enforcement of CUP is to only to benefit Lynchburg.

“They start … coming up with a ‘wish list,’ and they impose ‘conditions’”, McRorie said. “All the conditions must be met before the owner can proceed— to be allowed to develop and to use this particular property for whatever your plan is.”

Liberty officials also feel that the city has over-exercised CUP rights by requiring the unnecessary spending of money.

“The city planners made us show tree lines on the plan – something that has no basis in state or federal law,” Beaumont said. “They also made us conduct a traffic study that looked at River Ridge Mall, and a fully constructed Liberty Village Retirement Community simply because they can force these conditions under a CUP. It was nothing more than a waste of the students’ tuition dollars.”

Both Beaumont and McRorie believe that the apprehension the city council feels about revoking the CUP requirement may be rooted in one thing: money.

“Those are some of the main reasons why there is tension. If you get to the bottom line, it’s about money,” Beaumont said. “Improvements on this side of town paid by (Liberty) means the city can spend tax revenue downtown.”

Because of the city’s restrictions, Liberty officials feel that one way out is to raise its political voice, according to McRorie.

“The continual nagging, extra expense and delays have gotten to the point where we have got to have a voice. We tried to just work it out, but we kept getting rebuffed over and over. We said, ‘Ok, it looks like the only thing we can do is act politically and exercise our right to vote, and to provide our students with information so they could vote for whomever they believed will best serve their interests, and just be regular full-time citizens, just like everybody else,” McRorie said.

McRorie encouraged students to vote on May 4 because the issues on the council’s platform directly and indirectly affect the students.

“If you don’t want your tuition to go up, your cost of living in Lynchburg to go up, your meals tax to go up, your cost of everything to go up, then we need to have the right kind of people who share our values and who want to see government to be less in our lives than it is now,” McRorie said.

Contact Amanda Sullivan at

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