At their May 5, 2021 meeting, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors unanimously voted to adopt a Purchase of Development Rights Program (PDR) for the Rural Area. The Board unanimously denied the Rural Area Plan; however, for mixed reasons and remanded the Residential Clustering and Transfer of Development Rights back to the Planning Commission to be reworked. Also, under consideration and sent back to the Planning Department, is expanding the data center overlay district. There are landowners in the rural area interested in creating a 400-acre data center district in the Rural Area along Pageland Lane.
Purchase of Development Rights Program will allow for property owners in the Rural Area with 20+ acres of contiguous A-1 zoned, Agricultural land to submit an application to sell their development rights to the County. The Program is entirely voluntary and will allow land owners to retain ownership of their land while conserving it for natural, historical or agricultural purposes. Pricing and funding of the program are big issues here and will determine the success of the program. The value of land is very much dependent of zoning and demand.
Sent back to the Planning Department for were the proposals for the creation of a new use classification and zoning of Conservation Residential, CR-3 and CR-5 within select areas of the Rural Area. The Conservation Residential areas are where cluster developments would be built, would allow extension of sewer into the Rural Area and would require 60% of the property to be dedicated in a permanent conservation easement. The buffer around the entire property is intended to be placed in a permanent conservation easement.
The other Planning Department recommendation sent back to be reworked was the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program. Planning Office staff has recommended several Regional Activity Centers in both the Development Area and the Rural Area as receiving areas for TDRs. 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.
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. TDR programs must be tailored to the specific political, economic and geographic circumstances of their location. The economic demand and return for selling and purchasing the development rights must be high.
This commitment to the larger goals of the comprehensive plan and to the particular resources being protected is essential to overcome challenges. A study done at Cornell University found 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 or zoning changes 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 to facilitate the market TDRs by providing information, providing a clearinghouse or registry for the market, and collecting and analyzing data from the program. The Prince William County Board of Supervisors has a history of giving away rezoning and increased density.
Though, it is often believed that when you own land you can do what you want with the land, but that is not true. Zoning determines use and value of land. 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 undesirable activities.
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 created 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. These exceptions or restrictions can mean profit or loss to the landowner or developer. A piece of land that you can build a data center on is worth about 80 times as much as land that can only be farmed, for example.
The future and fate of Prince William County will be determined to a large extent by the Rural Area Plan. The Rural area is about protecting our Occoquan watershed and our groundwater and surface water resources. The Occoquan watershed is the most urbanized watershed in the nation and increasingly is a challenge to protect. Development increases impervious surface area, increases runoff and increases pollution and reduces groundwater recharge. This negatively impacts the drinking water supply for approximately 1.2 million Northern Virginians not just Prince William County. The downzoned portion of the Watershed within Fairfax and the Rural area have served as a natural water treatment system and high quality ecological habitat.
The comprehensive plan that is adopted needs to support the needs and values of our community today and tomorrow.