In clearing the way for a 99-home development in what’s known as Prince William County’s “Rural Crescent” last month, Democrats on the Board of County Supervisors have signaled a willingness to do away with some of the tightest restrictions in the state currently placed on more than half of the county’s land mass.
But with the housing, land use, and Rural Area sections of the county’s comprehensive plan update still being drafted, what types of development – and just how much – will be allowed in the area are still up for debate.
Expected to come before the county’s Planning Commission before the end of the year, the updated Rural Area Sector Plan will be based on planning staff’s 2019 recommendations and ultimately will head to the Board of County Supervisors for possible adoption. It could bring the biggest changes to the Rural Crescent in over 20 years.
Since 1998, the Rural Area’s 117,000 acres (comprising roughly 52% of the county) have been limited to one home per 10 acres. At the time, strict restrictions also were placed on the expansion of public sewer lines within the boundaries.
Part of the policy’s goal at the time was to protect the county’s farmland, but a 2014 study confirmed that development pressure across the county and entire Northern Virginia region had been eating into agricultural land for quite a while. From 2000 to 2012, it found, an average of 842 acres annually were subdivided in the Rural Area. Just about 20,000 acres of agricultural land remained at the time.
“Protective zoning is an important component of a land preservation program, but unless the zoning is very protective (one unit per 30 or 50 acres, for example) zoning alone will not preserve agricultural land,” the report reads.
Preservation activists came out in force to oppose the Preserve at Long Branch development, approved in an early-morning vote Jan. 20, and have attacked supervisors who they say have betrayed campaign promises to protect the Rural Crescent.
After the vote, activists circulated a copy of a 2011 petition from the “Advocates for the Rural Crescent” that was signed by current Board Chair Ann Wheeler. The petition committed to preserving the 10-acre rule and sewer restrictions. Wheeler declined to sign the pledge again when running for chair in 2019.
“Throughout 2019, I spoke repeatedly on the campaign trail that we needed better tools, rather than just dividing farmland into 10 acre lots, for preserving open space in the rural area as it is quickly disappearing,” Wheeler said in a statement to InsideNoVa. “I am committed to preserving open space for all the people of Prince William County to use and look forward to establishing new tools in order to do this. Hopefully my colleagues on the board will support these tools and ideas going forward.”
Democrats on the board pointed to the 2014 study, and subsequent 2019 recommendations, as proof that the development restrictions weren’t working as intended. During discussion prior to the vote on the Preserve at Long Branch, Wheeler, a Democrat, said that zoning changes covering the whole rural area are probably on the horizon.
Although the Long Branch project’s proposed development footprint is just 146 acres, the updated sector plan – which anti-development groups are pledging to oppose – will have a much bigger impact.
Sharon Harvey has organized against changing the rural area’s zoning alongside groups such as the Coalition to Protect Prince William County and the Prince William Conservation Alliance.
“We spent three of four days [after the Long Branch vote] just fuming, just stomping mad,” Harvey said. “After we got through all that we decided … that we’re going to really stick to smart land use and environmental responsibility, both things that everyone on that darn board has said they support, but they don’t.”
Coles District Supervisor Yesli Vega, a Republican whose district includes the proposed Long Branch development, said Democratic and Republican residents have supported the restrictions, arguing that development in the rural area would work against the board’s “smart growth” goals of adding density around transit
The Long Branch vote didn’t just split along party lines, it broke along geographic lines as well. The four supervisors representing the eastern part of the county (as well as Wheeler, the at-large chair) voted to allow the development, while the three Republicans representing the western side voted in opposition.
“We want to unite the county behind smart land-use decisions and not expand division by playing east against west,” Vega told InsideNoVa. “In these times of partisan division, we should savor things that have bipartisan support like the preservation of the rural crescent.
Vega said she hopes the comprehensive plan update will protect the features that make the county unique, from the Potomac River to the Bull Run Mountains. “This includes the rural area, the semi-rural area and the more populated transportation hubs in the east and west.”
BODDYE UNDER PRESSURE
While some public speakers at last month’s seven-hour meeting did support the Long Branch development, the clear majority were there in opposition.
Occoquan District Supervisor Kenny Boddye, a Democrat, in particular came under pressure for statements he made when running for office. Before his election in 2019, Boddye said he “fully” supported preserving the Rural Crescent, “as it currently stands.”
But Boddye told InsideNoVa that since taking office, he’s gained a fuller understanding of the tools the county could be using to help preserve what’s left of the area’s agricultural land and promote environmental conservation. He wants to see the update to the comprehensive plan allow for transfers and purchases of development rights. That would effectively allow for acreage to be swapped between parcels, allowing for one to be preserved as open space and the other to be developed at a slightly higher density with conservation easements. Those ideas were among the planning staff’s recommendations in 2019.
“I don’t believe … that this spells the end of the Rural Area,” Boddye said. “In the past 20 years, a lot of the stated spirits and objectives of preserving rural areas and green, open space have not been taken care of with the current tools that we have.”
Boddye also said that what some currently call “open space” being preserved in the area isn’t accessible to anyone who doesn’t buy land there. In defense of his vote last month, he said the 171 acres that would be donated to the county would add much-needed park space with access to the Occoquan River, south of Lake Jackson.
As for smart growth, Boddye told InsideNoVa that if the county is smart about where to allow some additional residential clusters, it can add enough pockets of density to support transit in places where it isn’t currently feasible.
“This idea that one-per-10-acre lots is going to have us conserve and keep from sprawl does not work by itself,” Boddye said. “If you have a countryside of large homes, that doesn’t serve open space.”
Public sewer access in the area has been a particular point of contention. Preservationists have argued that once access to the county’s sewer system is extended into the rural crescent, developers will build off it to add more housing to the rural land, eschewing the more cumbersome septic systems used by most dwellings in the Rural Area.
Brentsville District Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, a Republican, couldn’t be reached for comment for this article, but during the Long Branch vote spoke at length about how allowing the development, and in particular its sewer access, would ultimately bring an end to how the Rural Area has been conceived.
“If we allow the sewer line to go out there tonight, I guarantee this is just going to be the first domino that’s going to fall,” Lawson said. “There’s going to be other applications going to this board and we’re going to see what I would call a spider web or network.
But with Republicans in the board’s minority until the next county elections in 2023, the five Democratic supervisors will likely have the final say in making the first substantial changes to the area since the 1998 comprehensive plan.
“When we do our comprehensive plan, we will make changes,” Wheeler said. “And I think everyone is aware of that.”