We come to Prince William County’s land use wars reluctantly. In many ways, this is not our battle. We have no political ambitions. Our three children long ago graduated from the now most overcrowded schools in the state. We are both retired, at least for now, and thus no longer struggle with the tortuous commutes in which way too many of you still suffer for hours every day, unable to spend that time with your loved ones. In other ways as well, including the location of our home, we are lucky to be out of reach from the effects of past and future bad land use decisions by the PW Board of County Supervisors (BOCS).
Envisioning a Better Future
But this is still our battle, even after almost 15 years fighting it. And it should be your battle, too, if you wish to prevent an avalanche of residential development coming your way over the next four years, including the breaking open of the Rural Crescent to high-density residential. (More on that below.)
We love you and want you to experience the best this county could have to offer: 1) teachers with more competitive salaries, much better teacher-to-student ratios, and few, if any, trailers in our schools; 2) new residential development not approved unless roads are sufficient to handle the new traffic volume generated; 3) relatively low taxes allocated effectively by county officials to the people’s highest priorities — schools, roads, green space, and parks — with a much higher percentage (at least 35%, not the current lowly ~15%) coming from taxes on commercial real estate; 4) minimal tax-negative residential development, focused on truly affordable housing (not $350K luxury townhouses) for low-income public servants and workers; 5) beautiful neighborhoods with families flourishing economically, socially, and spiritually (good mental health and low crime); and 6) beautiful open green spaces. We want all of us to live in a well-run county that listens to the desires and aspirations of ordinary citizens, not a governmentally and economically corrupted and dysfunctional one. (See also “Our Vision of the Future” at: https://pwcbg.org/about-us/ )
We want land use and development proposals that come before the BOCS to be honestly scored and graded by county Planning Staff according to their effect on and harmony with the six principles listed above and the closely related five principles in “Our Vision of the Future” — or any similar list of county land use priorities and standards based on “the greatest good for the greatest number” and not just the financial interests of a tiny few. For major land use proposals, it might be best if these scores were reviewed by non-partisan, non-residential-developer-controlled, independent citizens groups. Any proposal that did not meet a minimum standard score would, by definition, be unworthy of approval. The county’s Comprehensive Plan could be updated accordingly. (County Planning Staff already has a scoring system for land development proposals, but it is neither complete nor entirely credible nor always respected by independent observers. It can easily be rigged under pressure from residential developers and their BOCS allies, just as the county’s Rural Crescent Study process has been thoroughly and repeatedly rigged, ignoring overwhelming citizen input — apparently until Planning Staff and the BOCS get the pro-residential development answers they want to hear. For more info, see first hyperlink below.)
What You Can Do Now; BOCS Candidates
So what can you do? Please share this information with family, friends and neighbors via Facebook, other social media, email, etc. And vote 5 November. Do not let a tiny clique of residential developers and their big landowner and BOCs allies continue to hijack your county government, your future, harming you (schools, roads, property values, the environment, etc) and then making you pay for it through higher taxes.
Rural Crescent — Specific and public support for the Rural Crescent is the only across-the-board, objective measure we have for measuring a BOCS candidate’s willingness to support limits, any limits, on residential development, and willingness to support significant amounts of green space. It is also an excellent way to hold individual supervisors accountable later if they don’t keep their promises. Protecting the Rural Crescent also ensures that the county will not squander infrastructure dollars in areas with little or no existing infrastructure — i.e., the Rural Crescent — while ignoring development of areas like the I-95/Rte 1 corridor, which already have a great deal of existing infrastructure and whose residents may desire the right kind of development to improve less-developed and/or underserved areas. Protecting the Rural Crescent takes land out of residential development to give the county’s overcrowded schools and roads and the severely imbalanced residential:commercial real estate tax ratio time to catch up, time to improve from its current ~85:15 ratio to at least the county’s official 65:35 target ratio.
Remember that once green space is paved over, it’s gone. Is that what we want? In the words of 60s singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. / They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.”
Candidate, Party, Residential Developer Skullduggery — Kenny Boddye is the only one of the eight Democratic candidates for the BOCS on 5 November who has clearly, publicly, and in a detailed way expressed support for the Rural Crescent. Instead, using Brentsville BOCS Democrat Maggie Hansford as an example for her Rural Crescent-AWOL Democratic Party, voters are now being promised “increased funding” for schools to reduce overcrowding, “long-term economic development,” and preservation of the Rural Crescent — but with no commitment whatsoever to limits on residential growth, including tax-negative growth, in the Rural Crescent or anywhere, and no limits on rezoning of commercial land to residential. Maggie also makes pie-in-the-sky promises to “expand mass transit options,” although the BOCS has little or no leverage on this issue. On the other hand, five of the six Republican BOCS candidates have repeatedly, publicly, and clearly supported the Rural Crescent, as discussed previously.
Returning to our discussion of Occoquan District Democratic candidate Kenny Boddye, we have discovered that he was there fighting with us against Ray’s Regarde, a recent harmful residential development in Woodbridge District opposed by that district’s supervisor Frank Principi and a clear majority of district residents. Apparently in defiance of county Democratic leadership, Kenny was also the only Democratic candidate to attend the 8 October news conference on the BOCS’ and Planning Staff’s rigged Rural Crescent Study. The BOCS scheduled a vote on 15 Oct on Republican Supervisors Lawson and Candland and Democratic Supervisor Principi’s resolution to restrict and redirect the off-the-rails study, which has largely ignored clear 10:1 citizen input asking that the Rural Crescent be left as is and not broken open by high-density (“cluster”) residential development and sewer. Kenny again was the only Democratic BOCS candidate to speak out 15 Oct, addressing the BOCS forcefully, in favor of protecting the Rural Crescent and approving the resolution.
By contrast, Kenny’s opponent, Supervisor Ruth Anderson, the only Republican BOCS candidate to refuse to publicly and clearly support the Rural Crescent, helped defeat the resolution on 15 Oct, by a 5-3 vote, with the help of Democrat Victor Angry (Neabsco) and three Republicans who are leaving the BOCS at the end of the year. Ruth defended her actions by sanctimoniously wrapping herself in the flag of phony process piety, saying that her integrity was on the line if she didn’t allow the (corrupt and rigged) Rural Crescent Study process to continue as is. Clearly, based on this and other recent actions by Ruth, she is no friend of the Rural Crescent or serious limits on residential development. Nor does she even consistently respect BOCS and county process, as the recent Rural Crescent studies have repeatedly violated appropriate process at public meetings, blatantly ignored citizen input, and given favored residential developers, such as Mark Granville-Smith (MGS), privileged access to influence the study findings — all apparently without a word of serious protest from Ruth, who, with her husband, has received $1,300 in campaign contributions from MGS. (See: http://vpap.org)
For more info on the large public turnout 15 Oct in favor of the resolution, Ruth and other BOCS members’ comments, and Rural Crescent Study irregularities, etc., see the county website: https://pwcgov.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=23&clip_id=2632 beginning at ~ time marker 1:56 with Kenny Boddye’s speech to 4:03. (Citizen input, almost unanimously in support of the resolution, ends at about 3:31:45, followed by supervisor comments and the vote.)
We note with interest a very recent blog by our colleague, citizen land use watchdog “Derecho” in Haymarket, who has gained possession of an e-mail describing a well-organized Mark Granville-Smith (MGS) stealth public relations and lobbying campaign to open up the Rural Crescent to high-density development. Addressees and apparent participants in the campaign include many of the county’s leading supporters and enablers of out-of-control residential development, such as land use lawyer Peter Dolan of the extremely developer-friendly Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley & Walsh law firm. See: https://thederecho.blogspot.com/2019/10/and-answer-is-unfortunately-yes.html?view=classic One of our recent encounters with Peter was the failed multi-year attempt, spearheaded by him and his firm, to build the massive residential development Stone Haven, off Devlin Rd in Brentsville District. We have had many encounters with MGS and, to put it as politely as we can, all of them have left us with the feeling that he has nothing on his mind but $ and will say or do anything to get more $ through his residential development schemes, regardless of how it affects other people and the county as a whole.
Here’s another very interesting and recent Derecho link regarding which BOCS candidates are being supported by the residential developers who want to break open the Rural Crescent to high-density residential development: http://thederecho.blogspot.com/2019/10/weve-seen-this-movie-before.html?m=1 Looks like these residential developers and big landowners agree with us that their best bets to pursue out-of-control residential development in the Rural Crescent and elsewhere are BOCS Chairman candidate Democrat Ann Wheeler, a leading advocate of the Rural Crescent-busting Bi-County Parkway, and Brentsville District Supervisor candidate Democrat Maggie Hansford. Considering this, isn’t it more than a little disingenuous for Maggie to continue to vaguely claim, in her direct mail political ads, with no specifics or commitments whatsoever, to be a defender of the Rural Crescent and “standing up to developers”?
In fairness to all candidates, we acknowledge, as we have previously done, that no candidate is perfect. Such is the nature of our democracy based on compromise among many competing groups and interests. On specific issues, we have previously publicly criticized and exposed mistakes by some of the Republican candidates who are currently running for the BOCS. We reserve the right to staunchly oppose any elected Republicans and Democrats who clearly go to the dark side, as BOCS Chairman Corey Stewart did after initially, as Occoquan Supervisor, being an effective advocate of limits on residential development. (Republicans Stewart and Coles Supervisor Marty Nohe have known us for at least 10 years as some of their most relentless, outspoken critics. Equally so, former Brenstville Supervisor Republican Wally Covington, who is still the most corrupt politician we have ever known personally. We also frequently criticized — but to a lesser extent because they were on the other end of the county — Hilda Barg and John Jenkins, who were rubber-stamp, pro-residential development Democratic BOCS supervisors.)
All that said, we are much more comfortable with candidates and BOCS members who agree to limits on residential growth, and have frequently (though not always) worked with us to stop bad proposals, rather than those candidates (i.e., all the current Democratic BOCS candidates except Kenny Boddye) who have been absent and/or virtually silent on the land use battles of recent years, who refuse to publicly and specifically agree to any serious limits on residential development now, including in the Rural Crescent, who appear to have little or no understanding of land use issues, and/or who are already, even before elected, receiving large amounts of money or other support from residential developers and sources outside the county. Even before gaining office with all its temptations, they’ve already started very badly.
Now here’s a bit of a paradox, but a reality nevertheless, at least in our county. Campaign funding is a very important indicator of possible intent, and we detest how much residential developer money there is in PW politics and what a corrupting force it can be and usually is on specific issues and, over time, to politicians personally. But campaign funding is still a secondary test compared to a candidate making specific, known public commitments to seriously limit residential growth and preserve the Rural Crescent, and thus be accountable to carry them out. By refusing to be held accountable on land use, seven of the eight Democratic candidates and one of the six Republicans fail completely to be worthy of the trust of county voters.
Beware of TDRs (transfers of development rights), a pro-residential development tool being considered for the first time that we know of by the county as part of the Rural Crescent study and for broader use. Every BOCS member and candidate seems to like TDRs — at least we have yet to find any who have expressed opposition to them. But we’re not so sanguine.
TDR Definition — A TDR shifts residential development from one land parcel to another, transferring building rights from a “sending” to “receiving” area. All of the Rural Crescent could be designated as a “sending” area, or places of special sensitivity/priority could be identified. Defining “receiving” areas is typically very challenging because someone’s neighborhood will be impacted by higher-than-planned density when development rights are transferred.
Who Decides & How? — Does anyone actually believe that all TDRs will direct residential development to the Rte 1/I-95 corridor or a small number of similar places, where it may be more welcome and positive and can serve an urban renewal purpose, and not elsewhere as well where it’s not welcome and serves no positive purpose? What’s to prevent the county from transferring development rights from the Rural Crescent (or virtually anywhere else in the county) to Devlin Rd., Rollins Ford Rd., Sudley Manor Dr., 234 Bypass, PW Parkway, many places in mid-county that none of us would like, etc., etc? Think of ever-scheming residential developers who care not a whit about the public interest or the greater good. Who will get to decide where TDRs can be transferred, and what, if any, credible public input/appeals process there will be, in what venue, for how long, etc? The likely result in our politically corrupt county: the same brew of even more tax-negative, high-density residential; increasingly overcrowded roads and schools, which will become further trailerized, particularly in west county; higher taxes; more environmental damage; and lower property values.
A 3-Fer for the BOCS — But then also add this result for TDRs: a process that will probably be decided in a non-transparent way, without serious input by ordinary (non-elite) citizens, and that is virtually impossible to stop. In other words, we won’t even be able to protest, publicly pressure, or counter-lobby the BOCS because the county must legally allow TDRs, once approved, as by-right (legally-required) development. The BOCS could thus more or less: 1) insulate itself against having to obviously vote against the public interest, 2) insulate itself against meaningful transparency and accountability, and 3) simultaneously take the sword of protest and public pressure out of the public’s hands. Perhaps behind this apparent current infatuation with TDRs is a beautiful three-fer for the BOCS. Hope not, because of what that says about the BOCS and because it would also undermine, at least in spirit, free speech and citizens’ right to petition the government.
Only Ordinary Citizens Can Change Things
So county land use is everyone’s battle. Without your informed vote, your informed involvement in BOCs land use and budget debates, your willingness to protest harmful proposals that come before the BOCS, nothing good can ever happen or be sustained. Otherwise, there are too many centrifugal political forces, too much residential developer money and temptation, too much political corruption and residential developer disinformation pulling against “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Thus, our mantra at Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth (PWCBG): “Only in the bright light of public scrutiny can the common good be secured, while in darkness and obscurity the interests of the powerful and affluent prevail.”
Your informed involvement regarding what the BOCS does — land use-related issues — means that the interests of the vast majority of citizens are protected. Your apathy means that our schools, roads, tax rates, environment, and property values suffer.
Ralph & Kathy Stephenson
Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth