Growth along Route 31 between Somerset Borough and the Westmoreland County line will now be regulated by a comprehensive development plan.
On Tuesday, the Somerset County commissioners approved the Route 31 West Corridor Zoning Ordinance for the 10-mile stretch of highway, which passes through Somerset and Jefferson townships.
Commissioners Pamela Tokar-Ickes and Joe Betta voted in favor. John Vatavuk opposed the measure.
The outline, as developed by the county’s planning commission, divides the area into eight different classifications: Conservation, agriculture, rural residential, medium density residential, resort, village, commercial and industrial. No zoning regulations previously existed. The new codes go into effect immediately for land located within 250 feet on either side of the road’s yellow line, a reduction from the original proposal of 1,000 feet.
Politicians and residents were deeply divided over the issue.
Betta spoke about his support of property owners’ rights before saying, “Somewhere, some place, the greater good got to be more important than your own interest.”
Supervisors from Somerset and Jefferson townships originally asked the commissioners to look into the possibility of implementing zoning rules in 2006.
They wanted to prevent the commercialization of the picturesque rural region, especially by limiting giant billboards.
Multiple public gatherings were held where citizens could learn about the ordinance.
Two dozen individuals attended the commissioners meeting. Most spoke in opposition. A few supported the plan as a way to preserve the natural beauty of the region that has seen increased tourist activity in recent years due in part to nearby Seven Springs Mountain Resort and Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort. The ordinance, according to its text, is designed to promote “public health, safety, morals, general welfare, the provision of adequate light and air, and other public requirements” and dissuade “overcrowding, blight, loss of health, life or property from fire, flood or other dangers.”
Vatavuk reached a conclusion that the majority of citizens opposed the plan, feeling it encroached too much into their rights.
“My feeling is we live in a democracy,” said Vatavuk. “My feeling is, as an elected official, I was elected to do what the majority of the people want. I know a lot of times the minority gets their way. I am opposed to that. The public had their chance to be heard at this hearing we had (in August). ... The people at that hearing were adamantly against it.”
Tokar-Ickes feels the ordinance will help growth progress in a controlled way.
“The goal of this study was not only to implement an ordinance, it was to look at all the factors and to basically minimize the negative effect of unregulated development along Route 31 corridor,” said Tokar-Ickes. “I think we have one opportunity to do this. I think our planning commission has been very, very willing to work through and take what had been an overly restrictive ordinance from 1,000 feet down to 250 feet. We have had a very public process for the development of this particular ordinance. We have done this at the request of duly elected representatives.”