Monday, May 5, 2014

The Rural Crescent

The long awaited “Prince William County Rural Preservation Study Report” was posted on the Department of Planning web site. I treasure the quiet and rural character of my home and I am a strong supporter for maintaining the Rural Crescent for ecological and water quality reasons as well as for quality of life for the entire community, so I was anxious to read the report. I attended a couple of the community outreach meeting and was left discouraged by the challenges that we face.

When the County Supervisors created the Rural Crescent in 1998 they slowed the loss of rural land in Prince William County. Limiting development density to one house per 10 acres combined with the limit on sewer extensions, creating one of the most protective zonings in Virginia, was a first step to preserve agricultural land. However, according to the consultants and based on the experience of the past 16 years, unless the zoning is very protective (one home per 30 to 50 acres, zoning alone will not preserve agriculture in the county and we are doomed to see the Rural Crescent cut up into 10 acre lots.

The Prince William County Rural Preservation Study found a broad support among stakeholders (community groups and residents) that it is important to maintain a Rural Area within the County. Another point of general consensus was that current preservation policies (primarily 10-acre zoning) is a one-size fits all approach that is not working very well across the large Rural Crescent area, which varies greatly in character from one end to the other. More tools are needed in the County’s Rural Crescent preservation toolbox to preserve a rural area. Furthermore, the consultants argue that mindful use of a series of tools can advance both Rural Crescent preservation areas and development goals.

According to the consultants, the County has a narrow window of opportunity to develop additional programs to maintain the character of the Rural Crescent. The 20,000 to 30,000-acre pool of farmland is fairly small and has been shrinking. Subdivision of the remaining farmland continues. The Study makes a series of recommendations that the consultants believe if fully adopted would result in a net increase of approximately 1,150 houses in the Rural Crescent and an increase of approximately 10,700 acres of permanently preserved land.

This 10,700 acres is far less than the County’s master plan stated goal of 39% protected open space, but almost 39,000 additional acres would be needed to meet that goal, and the pool of land still available to achieve this is less than 30,000 acres. Without policy changes, the Rural Crescent will likely continue to develop dominated by large lot residential development, with little contiguous open space and significant loss of agricultural lands, losing the open space for the county and the rural character of the area. So, the consultants recommend that the Supervisors adopt within the Comprehensive Plan a vision that describes what the County wants the Rural Area to be and use that vision as the basis for setting policy. They suggest:

“The Rural Area is a landscape dominated by agriculture, woodland, open space and other undeveloped land. The Rural Area allows for low-density residential development that is planned and designed to not dominate the landscape. The Rural Area accommodates a variety of activities and lifestyles associated with rural areas including farming of all types, low density residential living, rural businesses, cultural heritage, recreation, and preservation and enjoyment of the natural environment.”

The more I thought about it, the more I liked that vision for the Rural Crescent (which the consultants always call the “Rural Area.”) The consultants go on to recommend that each development proposal should be reviewed on a case by case basis to consider whether it would further the vision and policies for the Rural Area and limiting maximum gross density of one unit per two to three acres and a minimum 50 % open space requirement.

Tools that the County needs to develop for maintaining the Rural Crescent are adopting a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program. A Purchase of Development Rights is a voluntary program in which a landowner agrees to sell his or her development rights to a government (local, state, or federal) in return for a cash payment. A reasonable, though aggressive, goal according to the consultants would be to preserve 8,000 acres through a PDR program. This level of preservation would maintain the largely rural character of the agricultural parts of the Rural Crescent. The consultants recommend that the County appropriate $5 million to begin funding the program using local and non-local revenue sources that are further outlined in the report (see section 4). Five million dollars could preserve at least 1,000 acres using a cap of $5,000 per acre and with additional acreage possible through leveraging state and federal matching funds and partnering with preservation-oriented organizations. There are several existing programs for matching.

The consultants also recommend that the County explore the creation of a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program. A transfer of development rights (TDR) program creates a market in development credits through the county government. The County would give development credits to landowners in a designated preservation area. A system of 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 and that the county will allow higher density development if TDRs are purchased. Having transferred the development rights, the original landowner and all future owners of that property are restricted from developing the 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.

Protected areas, the sending areas, should be the highest value agricultural, scenic, and culturally significant parts of the Rural Area. Receiving areas would be: appropriate locations in the Comprehensive Plan’s Development Area; what the consultants calls Nokesville Village, Sector Plan Core Area; and areas within the Transitional Ribbon (see diagram below) where higher density development would be more protective of environmental resources and rural character than development of the sending areas.
the proposed Rural Character Areas

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