The Prince William Board of County Supervisors began the process Wednesday of updating existing policies and adding several new ones that could result in broad changes to the county’s existing development patterns and housing policies.
The board initiated five separate comprehensive plan and zoning text amendments and voted to spend $390,000 to hire a contractor to assist in developing those plans.
The decisions came in a series of after-midnight votes taken after the board briefly considered adjourning until 9 a.m. to take up the matters later in the morning but then decided against it due to scheduling conflicts. The board has struggled with hourslong meetings and late-night votes for several months. All votes were taken with little board discussion.
Possible changes to the ‘rural crescent’
Some of the policies, if enacted, could open the door to more dense housing development in the county’s rural area, sometimes called the “rural crescent,” where extensions to public sewer lines are generally prohibited and development is limited to one home per 10 acres. Those changes include a new “conservation residential” zoning designation and a “transfer of development rights” program as well as a possible overhaul of the county’s sewer ordinance. The existing rural area zoning policies were enacted in the late 1990s to halt suburban sprawl.
The board voted 5-3 along party lines – with Democratic supervisors voting in favor and Republican supervisors voting in opposition – to reconsider a conservation residential zoning designation. The change would allow higher-density residential development with access to the public sewer line in designated areas, including in the rural crescent, as long as 60% of the property included in a proposed development is preserved as open space via a conservation easement.
The board voted 7-1 to re-initiate the study of a transfer of development rights program, which would allow landowners to sell their properties’ development rights to developers in exchange for the ability to build more housing units than current zoning allows in designated “receiving areas.”
Only Supervisor Yesli Vega, R-Coles, voted against the re-initiation of the transfer of development rights program.
Both proposals were originally considered by the board in May as part of the county’s “rural area preservation plan.” Supervisors adopted only one part of that plan at the time: a purchase of development rights program. A PDR program, which is still under development, would allow large-tract, rural landowners to sell their development rights to the county to be placed in conservation easements. In May, the board sent both the TDR and conservation residential proposals back to county staff for re-evaluation.
The board’s re-initiation of a conservation residential zoning designation expands the original scope beyond the rural area to include areas of the county currently planned for semi-rural development. The semi-rural zoning designation, mostly located in the mid-county area, generally allows one home per 2.5 acres.
Possible ‘affordable dwelling’ ordinance
The board voted 6-2 to initiate an update of the comprehensive plan’s housing chapter, with Vega and Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, voting in opposition, and voted 5-3 along party lines to update the comprehensive plan’s sewer chapter, with the board’s Democratic members voting in favor, and Republicans voting in opposition.
The board voted 7-1 to initiate work on an affordable dwelling unit ordinance that, if adopted, could require housing developers to include a mandated percentage of affordable dwelling units in every new development. Only Vega voted against the initiation of the plan.
“An affordable dwelling unit ordinance is something this county has needed for some time. A lot of other counties are able to have it baked into their policies that, if you want to develop housing in this area county, you have to have a certain percentage of affordable dwelling units,” said Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan.
With the initiation of the housing chapter update and the proposed ordinance, “the county is finally on the brink of bringing affordable housing to this county,” said Supervisor Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge.
Proposals are part of larger comprehensive plan update: 'Pathway to 2040'
Comprehensive plans are kept by all Virginia locales and generally act as a blueprint for future development. They are required to be updated every five years by Virginia code. Prince William County’s comprehensive plan was last updated in 2010. County officials have been working on the current update, dubbed "Pathway to 2040," for the last few years.
The proposals are separate from a related process that allowed county landowners to request changes in their properties land-use designations. The county recently received more than 30 such requests, including several from landowners who want to rezone their properties for data centers. Other landowners have asked the county to replan agricultural properties for new housing developments.
The board voted 5-3 along party lines Wednesday, July 14, to appropriate $390,000 to hire a contractor to assist in the completion of the comprehensive plan updates with the board’s Democratic members voting in favor and Republicans opposed. The board previously allocated $470,000 in consultant funding for land-use planning initiatives, including comprehensive plan updates, in October 2020.
“I don’t like the idea of outside consultants planning this county when we have planning staff that is connected to the community,” Lawson said.
Once the existing policies are updated and the new policies are drafted, the comprehensive plan and zoning text amendments will return to the county’s planning commission and eventually to the board of county supervisors for final approval at an undetermined date.
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