After a month-long delay for further study and review, Fayetteville planning commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday evening to approve a request by Gary Driggs and New River Ledges Associates (NRLA) to rezone nearly 1,000 acres of property along the rim of the New River Gorge.

The commission’s recommendation — which ultimately must be approved or disapproved by town council at its January meeting — classifies the property as R-1 (residential use). Driggs hopes to eventually build 550 upscale, single-family dwellings along a 6-mile stretch of the gorge.

“We’re very pleased and gratified for the commission’s vote,” Driggs said.

“We look forward to working with them to make it a successful project. Hopefully, we’ll be able to work out the details to as many people’s satisfaction as possible. It’s a wonderful town, and we think we have a fine project. We think it’ll be a fine addition to the town.”

Acting upon a request made by the National Park Service, Driggs added that he will propose each lot’s application one at a time, rather than submitting an entire subdivision plan to be considered as an all-encompassing entity.

Not everyone was pleased with Tuesday’s decision. Though the public did not speak at the meeting — the public hearing took place Nov. 17 — Erin Haddix’ countenance spoke volumes for her reaction.

“We continue to be concerned about the lots that are right on the rim,” said Haddix, a representative of the National Parks Conservation Association.

“You can see the road from the (New River Gorge) bridge now, so any house you put in front of that road will obviously be seen from the bridge. We continue to be concerned about those and look forward to a vigorous public process in the plat approval stages.”

Commission president Anthony Salvatore opined that the easy conclusion would have been to vote down the project.

The more difficult and rewarding path, he said, was to vote yes — thereby providing elected officials, developers, the National Park Service and area residents with the opportunity to become better informed on the issues.

“This is an important question. Our decision must attempt to be all things to all different people,” he said.

“I keep hearing this recurring theme that Fayetteville is a destination community. Lo and behold, we now have a developer who wants to do that. Mr. Driggs, I know this has been challenging thus far. Now, we start the hard stuff.”

Prior to the vote, commissioners peppered Driggs with a few questions and concerns they had about his plans for development along the New River Gorge. A recurring concern for everyone was the disputed boundary of the New River Gorge National River.

Driggs and Debbie Dardin — a spokesperson for the National Park Service — conceded that no one really knows exactly where that boundary lies. Both estimates are about 200 feet apart.

“Congress states that the boundary is ‘approximately’ where it is,” Driggs said. “We asked NPS to clarify their boundary, and we’ve spent hours walking what they thought was the boundary.”

Commissioner Jim Akers — who also serves as mayor of Fayetteville — questioned Dardin about what he perceived as misleading maps of the NPS boundary floating around on the Internet.

Akers said a map he saw — dated September 2004 — features a disclaimer about the lines not representing an accurate boundary demonstration. Dardin disputed the origin of the map.

“We can’t actually perform a boundary study. To the best of our knowledge, we have estimated where the boundary is.” An actual survey of the land, she said, has not been conducted.

Driggs worked to reassure commissioners that his property — featuring low-density, residential development — is the lesser of evils, contrasted with previously proposed commercial development on the property.

“We’ve met with dozens of people who say they want this form of development here,” he explained.

“In 1994, the original owner had an intensive development plan, featuring shopping and other commercial development. That plan also had homes descending into the gorge. None of that will even be considered here. We want to have a very minimal visual and ecological impact on the gorge.”

“This property can’t go undeveloped,” Akers said. “It can’t lie there in limbo. This has been a very rewarding experience.”

— E-mail: mhill@register-herald.com

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