Four candidates vying for at-large chair of the Prince William Board of Supervisors discussed their visions for the county’s future Wednesday during a forum in Manassas.
The event occurred just two days after GOP candidate John Gray faced a backlash from his Democratic rival Ann Wheeler over several racist, homophobic and misogynistic tweets recently deleted from his Twitter account, but the issue was not mentioned during the event.
Instead, candidates discussed the fate of the county’s rural crescent, the two bond referenda on the Nov. 5 ballot and the county’s revenue sharing agreement with Prince William Public Schools.
On Tuesday, Prince William County Republican Committee Chairman Bill Card issued a statement saying, in part, that “Prince William County is a diverse community where there is no place for bigotry or intolerance.”
Card also said Gray “plans to meet with members of the community to make amends.” But during the forum, Gray made no mention of his tweets or when such a meeting would occur.
The event was organized by the Prince William Committee of 100 and the Prince William Area League of Women Voters and moderated by Bruce Potter of Inside NOVA.
The county’s next at-large chair will have a hand in deciding new zoning rules for the county’s 117,000 acre “rural crescent,” where development is currently limited to one home per 10 acres.
The Prince William Planning Department recently released its recommendations for zoning changes to the rural crescent. They include programs enabling the “purchase of development rights” and the “transfer of development rights” and suggest pairing clustered developments with conservation easements under a new zoning designation called “conservation residential.”
Critics of current rules say the county risks having its remaining open space and agricultural land divided into 10-acre residential lots. Critics of the county staff’s recommendations say they would invite more residential development into an area lacking sufficient infrastructure to handle it.
Gray (R), Wheeler (D) and independent candidates Muneer Baig and Don Scoggins are at odds on how to best preserve the area.
Gray said he would keep the current one-home-per-10-acre rules in place for another 20 years if elected. Gray didn’t say whether he would consider any of the county planning department’s recommendations.
“I think we should put it in effect for another 20 years, and take our time and develop it properly, preserve it properly,” Gray said.
Baig (I) said he is strongly opposed to keeping the current plan. But he also said the county’s recent recommendations would not solve the issue. Instead, Baig said putting land into conservation easements without cluster developments was the best way to preserve the rural area.
“If we leave the rural crescent as is, within the next 10 years there will be 10-acre parcels and there will be no rural crescent,” Baig said. “We need to put the land into conservation reserve with a third party. That’s how we will protect the rural crescent.”
Under Virginia law, the county cannot mandate that privately owned land be placed in conservation easement. That decision is up to landowners. The county can offer to buy development rights from private landowners on the condition that land is placed in conservation easements. That’s the purpose of a “purchase of development rights” program.
The county planning department recommends establishing a PDR program for the rural crescent, but the county supervisors would have to allocate money to fund it.
Wheeler (D) said she is open to finding new ways to preserve open space in the county and said she is in favor of exploring the recommendations presented by the planning department.
“We can piecemeal it up by 10-acre lots and that’s fine, but that means it’s going to be gone in 10 years. I think we can do better that,” Wheeler said. “I believe we can preserve open space better than we’re doing it now.”
Scoggins (I) said he would like to “put a pin” in the issue for now. He didn’t say whether he is in favor of the current plan or the planning department’s recommendations for rezoning.
Candidates were also asked how they would vote on the upcoming $396 million bond referendum to improve county roads and parks.
The bulk of the money in the bond referendum -- $355 million -- would go toward road projects, with $200 million reserved for easing traffic on Va. 28 in the areas of Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park.
The $200 million for Va. 28 would go toward a 3.5-mile bypass or an alternative plan to widen the road from four lanes to six through Manassas and Manassas Park. County officials are awaiting the results of an environmental analysis of a proposed Va. 28 bypass.
The bond referendum also includes $41 million in outdoor park improvements including $20 million to improve the county’s walking trails.
Both Wheeler and Baig said they will vote yes on both bonds. Gray said he is against both the parks and roads bonds. Scoggins said he would vote for the roads bond but hasn’t made up his mind on the parks bond.
Funding for schools
The candidates also had differing opinions about the county’s revenue sharing agreement with the school system, which allocates 57.23% of the county’s general fund tax revenue to the school division. This year, the school system received $607 million of the county’s $1.2 billion in general fund revenue.
The bulk of the county’s general fund revenue comes from personal property and real-estate taxes.
Gray said he believes the agreement has “outlived its usefulness” and said he would end the agreement if elected.
“Throwing more money at the school board doesn’t do anything, whether we give them 55% or 57%, we’re not looking at where that money is being spent,” Gray said. “The board of supervisors has effectively abdicated its oversight of the school board because they’re giving them 57%.”
Wheeler also came out against the revenue sharing agreement at the forum, saying it is “shortchanging the school system.”
“We have the lowest per-pupil spending in the region, significantly below the people around us. I think we have an excellent school system for the amount of money that we give them, but we still have the most overcrowded classrooms and the lowest paid teachers. At this point, I’m ready to look and see if there are other ways to be able to fund the school system,” Wheeler said.
Prince William County’s per-pupil spending was $11,633 in 2018, the second lowest in the region, according the Washington Area Boards of Education.
Scoggins said he is not in favor of the revenue sharing agreement and that there should be more accountability for what the school system does with the money. Scoggins said the current guarantee of 57% is “a little too high.”
“I would recommend maybe reducing it a little bit but reducing it in such a way that the school system will have to come and vie for the amount of money that they want,” Scoggins said.
Baig said education is a top priority for his campaign but did not say whether he supports the county’s revenue sharing agreement or not.
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org