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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. 

‘STOMPING MAD’

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.”

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

(4) comments

Sharon Fontanella

Once again Inside Nova misleads the public in this discussion. How about a little more journalist research? This map of the Rural Crescent should reflect the National Forest and Quantico which make up about 30% of the Rural Crescent. (The County Planning staff has these maps.) So when considering development in the Rural Crescent, it is disingenuous to lead the public to believe that 52% of the county is rural and ready to be developed. Much of the Rural Crescent is already developed and privately owned. How much of the Rural Crescent is owned by farmers and developers who want to build luxury homes on their property? That is the real question, and that is who is pushing for a change to the Comprehensive Plan. There is percentage of the Rural Crescent that consists of "older, smaller-lot residential enclaves" (Rural Preservation Study, PWC Planning Office, Sep 2019) with many smaller homes where there is already affordable workforce housing, e.g., law enforcement other local government employees and senior citizens. There are historic areas and publicly owned properties not available for development. The size of the Rural Crescent available for any development is quickly reduced. The County Planning Office has maps reflecting these details. What does the county (residents, not supervisors with a political agenda) want the Rural Crescent to be? Will taxpayers want to pay the freight to add transit hubs like the VRE, or highways and parkways with buses in this area in support of "affordable" housing which by the way means subsidized housing by way of state and local taxes. I would like the Board of County supervisors to explain who is being excluded from the Rural Crescent. Is it not a gated community. Why allow more development for luxury houses if "equity" is the intent. The tax dollars needed to improve roads, add sewer, add water mains and improve transportation connectivity in general in support of "equity" is cost prohibitive. Either we want to preserve agribusiness and tourism in the county or we don't. Citizens across the entire county need to know exactly what is being proposed by the Democrats on the BOCS rather than be led down some rosy path without the facts. What makes sense? High density housing at transit hubs with multiple commuter travel options and not just vehicular traffic. This is what the supervisors need to be looking at achieving. Building small area plans with transit in mind is smart growth. What happened to the Rural Preservation vision statement in 2019 of "preserving protected open space, environmental resources, and cultural resources; promoting availability of farmland and agritourism"?

Jack Print

@RealityChevk,

Thanks for bringing a few facts into the discussion. Too often it is reported that the Rural Crescent is 52% of the County, leading people to believe that the Rural Crescent is comprised of mansions on 10 acre lots where only the wealthy reside, leaving ordinary folks to cram into over-crowded housing in the remainder of the county. That may be a nice political narrative, but it hardly resembles the truth.

Most of the homes in the Rural Crescent are modest. While they couldn't be considered farms, the owners frequently raise chickens and other animals and grow large gardens that put food on their table year-round.

But the most misleading portion of these such articles is their failure to mention that the Occoquan Marine base, Prince William Forest Park, and the Battlefield Park take up huge swaths of land within the Rural Crescent. Thus, when Boddye claims that “open space being preserved in the area isn’t accessible to anyone who doesn’t buy land there," he reveals his ignorance of the topic - or worse, his willingness to lie to those who elected him. I fear that Boddye's flip-flop on the issue reveals that Boddye cares more about partisanship than the Rural Crescent he vowed to protect. In addition, I await Boddye's explanation of how he came to believe that the Prince William Forest Park or the Manassas Battlefield Park are supposedly closed to those who don't live within the boundaries of the Rural Crescent.

I have yet to see an article that accurately characterizes the Rural Crescent. What I do not know is whether that's due to careless reporting, or an intentional misrepresentation.

Finally, the root cause of crowded housing is not the lack of available land. It is in order to create housing at a lower price so that we "average folks" can afford to buy a house. Even eliminating the Rural Crescent altogether would not suddenly allow those of modest income to buy houses on larger plots of land. Townhouses and duplexes would continue to provide more economical housing.

NIMBY-CJE

We need to see the literal cities outside DC like Arlington and Alexandria eliminate and abolish single family zoning, build higher, bigger, and underground. We also need to see the entire VRE, WMATA, MARC lines filled with high density apartments, condominums, townhomes, duplexes, triplexes.

This way we can PROTECT the rural crescent and go for 1 house for 30 acres as there will no longer be demand. Also traffic will ease up on I-66 as people moving back closer in.

Lynne June

Agreed. Urban sprawl is exactly the opposite of what we need. There’s no point in improving and widening roads like Rte. 66 and 28 if more and more development occurs.

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