An aerial view of Lake Manassas in the Rural Crescent.
The way Prince William County protects its “Rural Crescent” could be changing.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted Sept. 20 to explore three new tools proponents say could better protect rural land while also offering more options to landowners. They include the purchase of development rights, the transfer of development rights and rural cluster development.
The supervisors voted unanimously to allow staff to investigate programs that would allow the purchase or transfer of land development rights.
According to county Planning Director Chris Price, the transfer of development rights program would best promote “smart growth” because it would direct development to the areas of the county already served by extensive public infrastructure.
Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, offered North Woodbridge as an area willing to receive higher densities.
“TDR lends itself to creating “regional activity centers” that allow for walkable neighborhoods and town centers, Price said.
But the vote on a third option, rural-cluster development, was more controversial, winning support from only five of the seven supervisors in attendance. Principi and Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, voted against the clustering option. Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, was away on a business trip and did not attend the meeting.
Lawson called clustering “a developer’s tool” and warned the board would face push-back from the community if they went forward with the idea.
“I don’t think we’re ready for this,” she said.
Price said he agreed rural clustering, by itself, is not a preservation tool due to its increased residential density in the rural area and likely need for public sewer and water hook-ups. But he recommended initiating exploration of all three tools, saying the combination would better preserve the county’s rural area.
Price added that staff could write controls to ensure that infrastructure does not worsen as a result of TDR or rural clustering.
Rural cluster developments are already an option in the county’s long-term land-use plan, but are apparently not attractive to developers as currently permitted.
“Nobody uses it,” Price told the board.
During citizens’ time, some residents came to the podium to express their concerns and frustrations with the current Rural Crescent zoning restrictions. Some said they unfairly tie residents’ hands regarding their property rights and limit their property values. Others expressed concern about some of the proposed tools while voicing support for others.
“TDRs and clusters are developers’ tools, not preservation tools,” said Haymarket resident Bob Weir.
Weir said both proposals could result in increased enrollment county schools. Western county schools could be impacted from cluster developments while the transfer of development rights would mean more students in already crowded eastern county elementary schools, he said.
“When the Rural Crescent was voted on it was not to be a permanent thing,” said Elizabeth Savage Parker, a resident of Aden Road, who argued current zoning rules make it difficult for farmers to sell their land.
Kim Hosen, executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, said her group supports only one of the three options – the purchase of development rights – because its the only one that would not add more residential density.
“There is no data that suggests all three tools must be implemented in order in order to use any one,” Hosen said. The PWCA “believes the only tool being considered that is sure to garner consensus with all of the community and preserve open space is a PDR program.”
The supervisors, however, said all three tools deserve more research.
Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, said if board members don’t like the staff proposals, they can decide not to implement them.
“As long as we’re not committed to this I’m with it,” added Supervisor Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac.
Following the Sept. 20 vote, Lawson released a statement assuring residents there will be more time to discuss and debate the new proposals.
“I was in the minority vote and unfortunately the vote to initiate the rural cluster housing regulations is moving forward,” Lawson stated. “But rest assured, there will be future opportunities for more citizen input as the zoning ordinance is further reviewed by county staff.”
County officials established the Rural Crescent back in 1998 as a way to put the brakes on expanding residential development that requires expensive public services, such as roads, schools and police and fire protection.
The Rural Cresent includes about 80,000 acres in the county’s western and northern sphere. It is a protected from development by zoning rules that limit the extension of public sewer lines and restrict housing to no more than one home per 10 acres.
Possible changes have been in the works for the county’s Rural Crescent since 2011 when the board asked the county planning office to look into whether current rules are in fact preserving the county’s rural assets.
In May 2012, the board authorized the Rural Preservation Study, which was finished and presented to the board in May 2014. The study marked the first time in 20 years the county explored options for the protected area.
The study, performed by private consultants, suggested the board consider several amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, including establishing a PDR program, a TDR program and reviewing how the county handles rural clusters. The study also said the county needs to improve its efforts to promote its rural economy.
The county planning office is also working on overall update to the county’s comprehensive plan, which will likely take about 18 months.