Thursday, January 9, 2014

Saving What’s Left of the Rural Crescent

The Backyard I want to save
If developers have their way, soon the entire Rural Crescent will look like the "Villages of Piedmont at Leopold's Preserve" over 400 homes and townhomes clustered in the center of 490 acres. Farming will disappear from the area. According to Prince William County official records the Rural Crescent, established in 1998, encompasses almost 116,000 acres, but little of that total is still agricultural land. The Rural Crescent includes about 23,000 acres of federal land in the forest and Manassas Battlefield, 55,100 acres that are already developed including Quantico and existing developments (including all the homes built on 10 acres allowed under the A-1 zoning during the last housing boom), 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. Preserving the 28,000 acres as farmland and possibly preventing the development of the 8,200 acres that have approved development plans in place could preserve the rural nature and feel of the county and is the goal of the proposed program.

There has been continual pressure on the Office of Planning, the Planning Commission and the County Board of Supervisors by developers and landowners interested in maximizing the value of property to amend the zoning to increase development density for parcels in the Rural Crescent. However, increased density development in the Rural Crescent is inconsistent with the social objectives of maintaining a wildlife habitat, preservation of farmland, preservation of groundwater and surface water supplies and the Occoquan Reservoir, protection of historically significant areas and scenic views, and prevention of development on fractured rock systems highly susceptible to contamination. The basic zoning that exists now in the Rural Crescent is A1- one house per 10 acres, much more money could be made by building at an increased density, but more dense suburban developments would not improve the quality of life of county residents, and would damage the ecology or the region and quality of life of all county residents.

Combining the 8,200 acres within the Rural Crescent with approved development plans and the 28,000 acres undeveloped and unprotected land, under the current A1 zoning 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. Carving up the Rural Crescent in this way would destroy the rural nature of the area and negatively impact the local ecology. In the survey that hundreds of Prince William residents took, there was strong support for maintaining the open rural nature of the Rural Crescent. The challenge that faces the county is how to preserve what is left of the Rural Crescent as truly rural land.

It is often believed that when you own land you can do what you want with the land, but that is not true. We have zoning and the county has a comprehensive plan to guide land use and development decisions that are made by the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors. It is not in the public interest to allow anyone to put a hazardous waste dump in their backyard, build a manufacturing plant along the Occoquan, mine uranium next to the water supply for the county or other publically undesirable activities. As a matter of fact, Virginia law requires every governing body to adopt a comprehensive plan for the development of the lands within its jurisdiction. So each county and city has a comprehensive plan. These plans are reviewed every five years, to ensure that they continue to be responsive to current circumstances and that the citizens of the county continue to support the goals of the plan. Exceptions to the existing plan are granted based on politics, influence or other reasons.

Within the framework of the comprehensive plan, land ownership is a series of rights and the ability to use those rights. For example there are mineral rights, there are water rights, and there are air rights. If all these right are still attached to the surface rights it is called fee simple ownership. It is common to separate these rights. In regions where mining and drilling have taken place, the mineral rights for land were often sold separately from the surface rights. In cities, air rights are often bought and sold to maintain views and sunlight. Water rights have been sold for generations in the arid west. In addition, zoning and other restrictions may hinder the ways in which land can be used or developed. So, it should come as no surprise that the right to develop land have also been bought and sold.

A system of transferable development rights, TDRs, allows ownership of the development rights on a privately owned parcel of land to be separated from ownership of the parcel itself. These rights can then be transferred from that property to another property in a different location that has been designated as a receiving area. Having transferred the development rights, the landowner is restricted from developing his land by a conservation easement or deed restriction. The buyer of the development rights uses them to develop another piece of property with more density than allowed by its comprehensive plan zoning.

In the past twenty years Montgomery County, Maryland and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (to name just two successful programs) have had county programs to give landowners in areas that the county wanted to preserve development rights that could be transferred. There already exists in Virginia enabling legislation for a county program to transfer development rights from the Rural Crescent to areas of the county that the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Department would want to see more densely developed.

Plans for TDR programs sound very straightforward; development is transferred from one location to another. However, in practice they have often been difficult to implement and have languished. It was reported by a Cornell University study in 2007 that there were 140 TDR programs in the United States. Program designs and results have spanned the entire spectrum from virtually no transfers at all (and thus no land protected from development to preservation of 49,000 acres in Montgomery County. Prince William County is coming late to the game. Most of the TDRs in Montgomery County were sold in the 1980s, and there has been less demand recently. In 1980, the county downzoned this entire area to a maximum of 1 dwelling unit per 25 acres, to discourage residential development. It can be argued that the preservation that did occur is a result of the downzoning and not the TDR program. The TDR program granted the landowners transferable development rights for building at the previous zoning of one unit on 5 acres to compensate them for the lost development value.

The idea that a TDR program would, by itself, protect open space, and preserve farming while helping to create appealing village centers in other parts of the county by simply offering a mechanism for moving development around is not realistic. According to the Lincoln Land Institute TDR programs work only when they are part of a comprehensive plan that has the commitment and political will of the community behind it. This commitment to the larger goals of the comprehensive plan and to the particular resources being protected is essential to overcome other challenges. TDR programs must be tailored to the specific political, economic and geographic circumstances of their location.

TDR markets work as a land preservation tool when landowners are willing and able to sell development rights, and developers are interested in buying those rights. The relative strength of the supply and demand sides of the market will determine the prices at which TDRs are sold. The willingness of suppliers to provide TDRs and of developers to buy those rights depends on the design features of the TDR program, local zoning rules, and the underlying housing and land market conditions in the region.

In addition to economic factors other program rules can affect the success or failure of the TDR market. The Cornell study reports that for a program to be successful a TDR use needs to be “by right” for developers. In addition, it is important that higher density not be given away “for free,” by the Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission outside the TDR program. Finally, how the market actually functions is important. The Cornell study found that local government needs facilitate making the market work by providing information, providing a clearinghouse or registry for the market, and collecting and analyzing data from the program.
Looking back at my house from the creek

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