Monday, December 9, 2013

The Rural Crescent Workshop

On Saturday, December 7th 2013 Prince William County Office of Planning held an open house and all day series or meetings at George Mason University, Prince William Campus to discuss the results of the County Planning Department study of the County's rural preservation policies, an evaluation of their effectiveness, identifying additional rural preservation tools that may be appropriate and effective, and listen to citizen concerns and recommendations for amendments to the County's land use planning policies. There were four sessions: Rural Character, Land Preservation, The Rural Economy and an Open Discussion session with Chris Price, the Director of the County Office of Planning. Each of the sessions was repeated several times throughout the day to allow maximum access by the public. The Planning Office will be posting the session slides and discussion on the web if you missed the meetings. As anticipated the session presenters were topic experts, but I found many in the audience were very well informed and about the county policies, development, zoning and history. I encourage you to view the material from the sessions when it is posted on-line.

I was particularly interested in hearing the presentation of Dr. Tom Daniels a Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. He had previously run the farmland preservation program in Lancaster County, PA and had studied and worked with several communities that had implemented successful and not so successful Rural Preservation Programs. His presentation focused on what tools exist for rural preservation and how likely they are to succeed. There is in reality a limited tool box for land preservation; most of these tools are based on partitioning land ownership rights. Owning land basically means owning a set of rights- the mineral rights, the use rights, the development rights, depending on what state the property is located, the water rights and the air rights. The development rights are controlled by zoning which we have discovered can be changed by the county supervisors by exception or amendment to the County Comprehensive Plan.

According to Prince William County records the Rural Crescent, established in 1998, encompasses almost 116,000 acres, that includes about 23,000 acres of federal land in the forest and Manassas Battlefield, 55,100 acres that are already developed including Quantico, about 2,600 acres that are permanently protected*(though permanently protected land can be seized for public use by eminent domain), 8,200 acres that have development plans already approved and almost 28,000 acres that are undeveloped and unprotected and could be preserved as open space and farmland. However, there has been continual pressure on the Office of Planning and the County Board of Supervisors to amend the zoning (to increase development density) for parcels in the Rural Crescent. The basic zoning in the Rural Crescent is A1- one house per 10 acres. So with the 8,200 acres with approved development plans, and the 28,000 acres undeveloped and unprotected there is a potential for 3,700 additional residences to be built in the Rural Crescent if it were to be entirely carved up into 10 acre parcels. The development rights in the Rural Crescent are the potential 3,600 homes.

The first land preservation option is essentially for the county or private party like the Trust for Public Land or another organization (the Piedmont Environmental Council does not define Prince William as part of their territory) to purchase or receive as a donation of a conservation easement the Development Rights to preserve as open space or farmland in perpetuity. The problem with the purchase of development rights is money. While the Commonwealth of Virginia has a farmland preservation program that provides funding to counties to purchase the development rights, the funding is extremely limited in the state. There is also federal funding under the 2008 farm bill (that will expire on January 1, 2014 and seems to include conservation programs in the latest versions of the Farm Bill that was sent Friday to the Congressional Budget Office to be scored. Even if the funding is maintained it only covers 50% the cost of development rights. Up to 25% can be donated land right value, but the rest must be paid for with cash.

There are several federal programs that have funding available to preserve farmland, forestland and ecologically important lands, but a county must have also have funding and staff expertise available to put together deals an navigate tax deductions and saleable state tax credits and work with organizations like the Department of Defense REPI (Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration) Program and the Trust for Public Land or the Piedmont Environmental Council to structure deals and pull together the funding to create a conservation easement or purchase the development rights. This takes a commitment on the part of the Board of Supervisors to fund and support such a program. I did not see a single member of the Board of Supervisors at the workshop.

The second preservation option is to transfer the development rights (TDR) to developments in other parts of the county that allow the developer to build a higher density than normally allowed. This was a strategy that worked incredibly well in Montgomery County where 7,000 TDR deals totaling $110,000,000 were done. Unfortunately, in Virginia the State does not allow the county to operate a “TDR” Bank and Prince William has only one remaining large development parcel that could have purchased a large number of TDRs, but that parcel is scheduled to have its zoning amended this summer. So essentially, it’s too late for the big deals and Prince William County would have to figure out a way to match development rights with small developments. The good news is that the Virginia legislature did pass the enabling legislation for that.

The final land preservation option is to cluster development with mandatory preservation of open space within the Rural Crescent. Cluster development is typically part of a low impact development strategy (LID). LID is the latest catch phase in ecologically friendly site development and consists of five elements: preserving open space and minimizing land disturbance; protecting natural drainage ways, soils and sensitive areas; incorporating natural site elements like wetlands, stream corridors, and woodlands as site features; reducing the size of traditional infrastructure; and decentralize and manage storm water at its source. While this is more protective of the environment (if you address the small group need for water and sewage management- clustered houses cannot have septic systems and wells and 5-10 homes may be too small a group to properly operated and manage a clustered on-site sewage treatment. Of the 345 farms in Prince William County (in 2007) 210 of them were 50 acres or less. LID is by its nature a distributed design involving, ongoing maintenance of the plants, replanting after severe winters or prolonged droughts, weeding, and other land and habitat maintenance along with effective water and sewage management. There does not yet exist a method of ensuring that these features are maintained appropriately and that any repairs or replacements are done with LID in mind.

It is a large challenge to preserve the Rural Crescent, but it is an extraordinary valuable resource that we need to maintain for our quality of life, the health of our watershed and the ecological services it provides. Protecting our water supply infrastructure is more than a pipe that runs into your house, more than the Occoquan. If you pave and build over the landscape the water supply will be irreparably damaged. Without water there is no Prince William County.

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