Several days ago, Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth (PWCBG) received an e-mail from a prominent and vocal Rural Crescent (RC) landowner. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call this person Mr. Bildmore. Mr. Bildmore’s e-mail message to us is revealing and can perhaps serve as a case study of sorts on the thought processes of residential developers and landowners who support opening up the Rural Crescent (RC) and elsewhere to high-density residential development, as well as who they’re backing (and not just financially) in the 5 Nov Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) election.
Here are relevant excerpts from Mr. Bildmore’s email, with our comments following.
A four-fold increase in Rural Crescent (RC) residential housing density?
1. Mr. Bildmore’s email says: “In the past 20 years, the rural pastoral property around me has been ruined for agriculture with 10-acre residential properties. The increase in traffic makes our narrow roads almost impassable at certain times of the day. … More 10-acre by-right development will increase traffic, impact private water supplies, and increase demand on other public services without producing more revenue to pay for such things as libraries, first-responders, etc.”
PWCBG’s response: Mr. Bildmore says he has read in its entirety and “is in agreement with” the county Planning Staff’s new RC Study recommendations. He criticizes those who question the study’s recommendations, clearly implying that their opposition comes from not having read it.
Among the most important staff recommendations in the latest RC Study from September 2019 is to bring cluster development and sewer into the RC: in other words, high-density residential development. See #3 of the following county Planning Staff document: https://protectpwc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Rural-Plan-Summary-of-Staff-Recommendation-091719.pdf
Using county Planning Staff’s own figures from their 30 July 2019 public presentation on the RC Study, new 10-acre lots remaining to be built by-right (legally entitled) in the RC are currently 2,800 Houses on 28,000 acres. If you develop those same lots under Planning Staff’s proposed CR1 zoning designation for its new RC Plan allowing high-density “cluster” development with sewer, then you have a four-fold increase in housing density: 28,000 acres x 40% x 1 acre lots clustered (10X density with sewer on 40% of area, 60% not developed) = 11,200 houses. Traffic & school impact using standard county multipliers: 11,200 houses x 10 = 112,000 daily vehicle trips; 11,200 homes x .7/students per house = 7,840 new students. (Note: While some Planning Staff figures/estimates have been somewhat in flux in recent weeks, the four-fold ratio/increase of course remains constant.)
We’re a bit surprised that anyone would seriously argue, as Mr. Bildmore does, that a four-fold increase in the number of houses and housing density allowed in the RC or anywhere would make traffic and schools less, not far more overcrowded. Logically and in the real world, it does not work that way. The “increased traffic” of recent years in the RC about which Mr. Biltmore complains is actually from high-density housing — tens of thousands of houses added in recent decades bordering or near the RC in west county along, for example, the north side of Vint Hill Rd, along Linton Hall, Devlin, and Sudley Manor roads, near Bristow Station Battlefield, etc.
Regarding by-right 10-acre lots already built in the RC, they’re a done deal, a fait accompli over which none of us have any control, whether we like it or not. And whatever the good and bad points of 10-acre lots in the RC (by the way, we do not live there), they are typically not tax-negative, though many of the new proposed high-density houses/townhouses in the RC would be. (Last time we ran the numbers several years ago, the breakeven point on real estate tax-revenue per house, all things equal, was almost $450K. With only modest inflation since then, we figure the breakeven number now is probably a bit higher. But let’s use the low $450K number to be on the conservative side. Thus, every house worth about $450K or more would be real estate tax-positive for the county. See: https://pwcbg.org/2014/04/548/ .)
2. Mr. Bildmore’s email also says: “We must implement tools such as PDRs [PWCBG note: purchase of development rights by county from landowners], TDRs [PWCBG note: transfer of development rights; see last few paragraphs of https://pwcbg.org/2019/10/how-board-of-county-supervisors-land-use-decisions-affect-you-before-and-beyond-5-nov-elections/ ], and clustering to control residential development and allow retention of agricultural land in areas zoned for it. ‘Green Space’ covered with houses has little benefit for anyone. Ten-acre properties do not allow enough space for agricultural pursuits that support families. There is very little production agriculture left in Prince William County and continuing to develop the ‘Rural Crescent’ (RC) with 1 house per ten acres will continue to destroy what remains.”
PWCBG’s response: It would be pointless to enter into a debate about the future of large-scale agricultural production on the edge of suburban and urban land anywhere, including PW County (as opposed to smaller-scale agricultural production like micro-breweries or farm-to-table garden production.) That is something determined by broad market forces over which no one in PW county, as far as we know, has any control.
We both come from a long line of past and current farmers in the U.S.’ East, Midwest, and West. But our sympathies for big landowners like Mr. Bildmore begin to fall apart when we realize that his entire argument is constructed around bringing a four-fold increase in residential density to the RC (through “cluster” housing and sewer) so he can get his land rezoned from cheap agricultural to expensive residential land. Then he can sell it to plant not crops but high-density housing, making a killing for himself and his residential developer friends and sticking county taxpayers with the bill to build the required RC infrastructure (roads, schools, police, sewer/water, etc) in an area that currently has very little.
We note that this family of landowners and the other developers and big landowners we know of who are agitating most insistently for breaking open the RC to high-density residential are supporters of Democratic Board of County Supervisor (BOCS) candidates Ann Wheeler (at-large) and Maggie Hansford (Brentsville.) See, for example the following hyperlink (our previous e-mail), ninth paragraph from the bottom with the “weve-seen-this-movie-before” Derecho hyperlink: https://pwcbg.org/2019/10/how-board-of-county-supervisors-land-use-decisions-affect-you-before-and-beyond-5-nov-elections/ See also: https://thederecho.blogspot.com/2019/10/who-you-support-and-what-they-stand-for.html
Residential developer tactics v. civic organizations, civic virtue
3. Now a word about what Mr. Bildmore’s email calls: “uninformed rabble-rousing opponents [of high-density residential development in the RC] who are causing unwarranted dissension … and relying on ‘mob mentality’ to stir residents into misguided actions.”
PWCBG’s response: Having become intimately acquainted with county residential developer/big landowner political tactics over the past 15 years, it’s a bit jarring to hear Mr. Bildmore describe opponents in terms that, in our experience, can only be applied seriously to some residential developers/allies and their tactics. In our direct experience, these tactics have included: intentionally lying and obfuscating the facts about development issues and proposals in order to confuse the public and discourage them from getting involved in county land use politics (a form of voter suppression); bribing BOCS members and candidates with $100s of thousands in campaign funds (as noted earlier, this is even more of a problem when the candidates refuse to publicly support and be held accountable to clear, specific limited-residential-growth positions); loudly heckling and interrupting speakers addressing BOCS hearings; trying to intimidate opponents with threats of legal action (entirely without justification); bribing citizens with free meals to show up in support of developers at BOCS hearings and fill the hearing rooms so there will be no seating available for opponents; etc.
The “rabble” to which Mr. Bildmore refers are citizens groups comprised of ordinary individual citizens, in our experience highly-educated and very well-informed people, among them academics and experts on land use issues. Republicans, Democrats, left-, center-, and right-leaning people, people from all walks of life make up this coalition, all of them civic-mindedly spending their own time and money, with no thought of financial remuneration, to create a better Prince William County through balanced growth/smart growth/controlled residential growth policies. They remain a deeply bi-partisan consensus coalition, a coalition much wiser than seven Democratic Party BOCS candidates who foolishly and/or cynically — possibly seeking short-term political gain, and clearly against the interests of the vast majority of county residents — apparently want rural preservation/green space and clear limits on residential development to become a partisan issue that only Republican BOCS candidates seriously and clearly support.
Here are hyperlinks to the citizen groups with which we’re most familiar (including us) and/or with whom we’ve partnered. Read about them, learn for yourself who they are and what they stand for, and perhaps join or work with one or more of them:
Friends of the Rural Crescent Energized (FORCE); search “FORCE – Friends of Rural Crescent Energized” on Facebook
Preserve the Rural Crescent (PRC); search “Preserve the Rural Crescent” on Facebook
The Coalition to Protect Prince William County; https://protectpwc.org/
Prince William Citizens Unite; https://princewilliamcitizensunite.com/
Mid County Civic Association of Prince William; https://www.midcopw.net/
Prince William Conservation Alliance; http://www.pwconserve.org/
Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth; https://pwcbg.org
Shallow Platitudes & Disingenuous Partisanship
The attempt this year by the official county Democratic Party and seven of its eight BOCS candidates (Kenny Boddye excepted) to make rural preservation and serious limits on residential development a partisan issue is indeed one of the saddest, most disappointing, most retrograde things we’ve seen in 15 years of county land use politics.
And then to personally hear Democratic Party BOCS candidates at the 23 October candidate forum (sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the PW Committee of 100) once again speak about land use issues in virtually nothing but shallow, meaningless platitudes is deeply disappointing and worrisome to us. Their argument, as best we can ascertain it, boils down to this: “It’s our turn to take over the BOCS (and be corrupt) now. We promise you nothing, we will commit to nothing, we know very little about land use policy, but trust us. Everything’s the Republicans’ fault.”
Do you trust and prefer politicians who act this way?
As we’ve learned over 15 years and pointed out repeatedly in our previous messages this month, the reality is that the county’s land use antagonists — i.e., current and recent BOCS supervisors who have consistently promoted out-of-control residential growth in the last 15 years, are very much a bi-partisan group, and too-often a working BOCS majority: Republicans Corey Stewart, Marty Nohe, and, increasingly, Ruth Anderson (previously Sean Connaughton and Wally Covington), and Democrats John Jenkins and, previously, Hilda Barg. While the sometime-insurgents against this group (but unfortunately usually a minority), pressing for protection of the Rural Crescent and some limits on residential growth have been: Republicans Jeanine Lawson and Peter Candland (previously, Mike May and John Stirrup) and Democrat Frank Principi — sometimes joined by Republican Maureen Caddigan.
Extend the history of the BOCS further into the past, beyond the last 15 years, and you’ll find exactly the same thing, except perhaps with less-frequent insurgency against the even-stronger standing pro-development majority. And the historical pattern, unsurprisingly, seems to be repeating itself. Looks like John Jenkins’ replacement on the BOCS, Democrat Victor Angry — who voted on Oct 12 with Republicans Stewart, Nohe, Anderson, and Caddigan to keep the rigged, pro-residential-developer, pro-high-density-housing Rural Crescent Study alive — may be joining the current BOCS majority favoring out-of-control residential development. Undoubtedly, a taste of things to come when winners from among the other six lockstep BOCS Democratic candidates, all of whom refuse to support the Rural Crescent and limits on residential development, smoothly and effortlessly transition into a new yet-very-old-school BOCS majority supporting out-of-control residential development. (Democrat Margaret Franklin of Woodbridge, like Angry, is running unopposed.)
Bad land use policy by the Prince William County BOCS is and has been a profoundly bi-partisan effort for decades. One of the shining, if perhaps not perfect, exceptions to this vicious cycle had been, at least until mid-2019, the Rural Crescent.
Qualification & Conclusions
Please note that nothing we have publicly written or said should be construed to mean that we oppose commercial development, the vast majority of which economically improves the county (jobs, taxes, stimulation of more economic activity.) That’s a big part of what we mean by “balanced growth.” We and others are constantly admonishing the county to improve the residential:commercial tax ratio from its current dismal ~85:15 to at least the county’s target of 65:35. We endeavor to scrupulously distinguish between commercial, which is normally positive, and high-density residential development, much of which is harmful. Nor do we have any objection, all things equal, to BOCS supervisors/candidates taking campaign funding from a diverse and broad base of commercial developers, as long as they make clear to the public that it is indeed commercial and there are no personal conflicts of interest. On the other hand, as we have also frequently said, residential developer campaign funding is an entirely different story.
Fellow PWC citizens: The BOCS’ responsibility and jurisdiction is limited to land use and related issues — i.e., real estate tax rates, and, to the limited extent to which it is discretionary, the county budget. Your informed involvement with the BOCS and land use decisions means that the interests of the vast majority of citizens are protected — the greatest possible good for the greatest number. Your apathy — or willingness to base your vote on things that have nothing to do with the BOCS’ land use role — means that our schools, roads, tax rates, environment, and property values suffer.
Please share this message and spread the word via Facebook, other social media, email, etc. Your thoughtful vote on 5 November is needed. Godspeed.
Here are online links to our previous messages this month and this one:
Ralph & Kathy Stephenson
Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth
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.