In a rare show of agreement, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors returned unanimous votes on a series of controversial proposals affecting the county’s restricted rural area Tuesday night.
The board adopted a program to allow the purchase of development rights but rejected what many called a largely dated comprehensive plan amendment.
The purchase of development rights (PDR) program will allow the county to compensate some large landowners in the rural area for leaving their property undeveloped. However, the board first will have to fund the program if it wants PDRs to help keep more land in the rural area from being subdivided into 10-acre lots, the allowable development density in the area, known as the “Rural Crescent,” which comprises more than half the county’s landmass.
The program was one of four policy ideas presented by the county’s planning staff designed to help preserve open space in the rural area by allowing some amount of clustered development at higher densities. Republicans on the board have largely fought any effort to allow for higher density in pockets of the area, while Democrats say the current policy – laid out in the county’s 1998 comprehensive plan – has led to the growth of sprawling 10-acre developments at the expense of the county’s dwindling agricultural land and open space.
But on Tuesday night, all board members agreed that the PDR policy was at least a good step in addressing some of the preservation concerns, possibly creating an out that could preserve land for farmers who’ve sought to sell for development. State and federal money is available to help fund the program, but the county would need to put up a local match. A similar program in Fauquier County has protected more than 4,000 acres at a cost of $2.7 million to the county, according to Prince William planning staff.
Meanwhile, the supervisors voted to send two other policy proposals back to the county’s planning staff for changes. One, a transfer of development rights (TDR) program would allow landowners in the rural area to sell their development rights to developers in six “receiving areas,” where the developers could then build more units than current zoning would allow.
That proposal was tabled after a wave of public comment decried the selection of two receiving areas within the rural area itself: at Nokesville and north of Doves Landing. Planning staff said the allowable densities in those areas would be far lower than the four “activity centers” chosen as receiving zones in the development area (the 47% of the county’s landmass not in the rural area): Virginia Gateway, Innovation Park, Potomac Shores and Potomac Mills. For example, the policy would allow for 1,500 additional homes to be built at Virginia Gateway compared to only 58 more in Nokesville.
But for the rural area activists who came out in numbers to Tuesday's meeting, as well as the Republicans on the board, allowing for any increased density within the rural area has mostly been a non-starter. Dense development, they say, should be limited to the rest of the county to preserve the county’s rural land.
Another policy tool that the supervisors sent back to planning staff would have allowed a select number of properties within the rural area to go through rezoning for cluster development at one unit per 3 or 5 acres. That could have also extended public sewer farther into the rural area, which activists have long opposed for fear it would encourage further development.
At the same time, the board unanimously discarded a comprehensive plan amendment that had been developed over seven years, rooted in a 2014 study of the rural area that showed that from 2002 to 2012, an average of 842 acres annually were subdivided in the rural area.
Brentsville District Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, a Republican, said the sewer issue would continue to be her line in the sand, preparing advocates for a continued fight over the rural area, but just not one where any big blows would come immediately. She said three were some parts of the comprehensive plan amendment that she liked other than the sewer recommendation.
“I campaigned ardently on this issue because I really believe that the key to preserving the rural area is keeping the sewer lines out,” Lawson said. “I am in this for the long haul, and we’re going to continue to advocate for the rural crescent. I am adamantly against sewer in the rural area, whether it’s for clustering or it’s for data centers.”
The comprehensive plan amendment would have called for a series of policies aimed at encouraging agriculture and agrotourism in the area, as well as limiting other uses within it. But it would have also allowed for some clustered development at higher density in the rural area.
Board Chair Ann Wheeler, a Democrat, said she wanted to see some clustered development in the rural area that would make some parts denser and allow the rest to be preserved as open space. But the 10-acre policy wasn’t protecting much in the way of agricultural land, she said, one of the reasons for the policy. She argued that the policy was instead allowing for typical-looking sprawling developments with strangely drawn lot lines to meet the requirement and keeping open space only for landowners.
“I support clustering and bringing in sewer to do clustering, I think that’s one of the only ways that we’re going to preserve open space,” Wheeler said. “We’ve done land use poorly over the last 20 years, and we have not preserved open space the way we should’ve.”
Wheeler called the plan amendment “stale” and said it suffered from being outdated. The supervisors broadly agreed that many of the staff’s recommendations had been delayed to the point that they needed refreshing.
After a long presentation from the county’s planning staff and an even longer public comment period featuring well over 50 speakers, Supervisor Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, proposed sending the TDR policies and conservation residential policies (which would have allowed for some level of clustering) back to county staff but taking the one step regarding the PDR program.
Occoquan Supervisor Kenny Boddye, who has called for the county to be more creative about the tools it can use to protect open space in the rural area, agreed that there were “kernels” of good policy that still needed to be fully cooked. All four of the policy proposals were either rejected, adopted or sent back to staff in 8-0 votes, though it was clear the agreement might not last long.
“Somehow, we’ve had four unanimous votes,” Wheeler said.
InsideNoVa reporter Nolan Stout contributed to this article.