Is this the end of Prince William County’s “rural crescent”?
Prince William County planners have revealed their long-awaited comprehensive plan land use update – a draft document that, if adopted by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, will provide a blueprint for local land-use decisions for the next two decades.
Among the most significant changes outlined in the draft: the elimination of the county’s rural area designation from the map, known to many as the “rural crescent.”
For the last 24 years, the designated rural area has allowed only one home to be built per 10 acres and mostly prohibited connections to the public sewer lines on about 80,000 acres of land in southern and western Prince William County.
But the county’s draft map, released Wednesday, Feb. 2, proposes replacing the “rural area” designation with a new “Agricultural and Forestry” label that would double the number of homes that could be built there. As proposed, the new plan could effectively upzone the area to one home per 5 acres.
Prince William County Long Range Land Use Planner David McGettigan confirmed in an interview Thursday that the county’s proposed new land-use map eliminates the rural area and the rural area boundary entirely.
“It’s a major update,” to the comprehensive plan, McGettigan said.
In all, McGettigan said around 75,000 acres of land in total will fall under the new “Agricultural and Forestry” designation, and another 5,100 acres would be replanned for even higher residential densities under three new "rural place types.” The new designations are: “Village Mixed Use,” “Hamlet Mixed Use” and “Conservation Residential.”
The “Conservation Residential” designation would allow for clustered home developments with up to one home per two acres if 60% of the total acreage of the development is placed in a permanent conservation easement. As proposed, the designation would comprise roughly 3,500 acres of what is currently the rural area.
Those areas roughly align with land-use change requests made by individual rural landowners who told the county earlier this year they intended to sell their land to developers, including Dale House, who recently closed his Dutch Land Farms in Nokesville, and Brad Smith, who owns Smith Family Farms in Gainesville.
Another 1,600 acres in the rural area would be reimagined as “Hamlet Mixed Use” and “Village Mixed Use” districts to allow increased residential densities and commercial uses in areas that have “their own distinct character,” according to the proposed map. Areas that would be replanned under those designations are Nokesville, Greenwich, Woolsey, Catharpin and historic Brentsville.
Hamlet Mixed Use districts would allow up to one home per 2 acres, while Village Mixed Use districts would allow up to four houses per acre, including townhouses.
The changes, if approved, would alter only the county’s long-range planning map, known as the comprehensive plan. Any specific development that proposes more homes in the rural area above the current limits will still require a separate rezoning application approved by the board of county supervisors, McGettigan said.
The county’s draft land-use chapter was created by county planners and an independent firm hired by the county to assist in the update. McGettigan said the planning office consulted all eight county supervisors to solicit their input as they began updating the land use chapter – but he said none of the supervisors specifically requested eliminating the rural area designation from the map.
McGettigan said the decision to allow increased housing density in the rural area was primarily prompted by a housing analysis of the county conducted by RKG Associates, a Washington D.C.-based economic planning firm, in 2021. The analysis found that the county’s ongoing housing shortage, widely blamed for driving up housing costs across the county, could persist for decades if the county does not open additional land for development.
The report found the “rural crescent” designation to be “antithetical” to the county’s affordable housing goals.
The county’s population has rapidly grown since the rural area was created by the board of county supervisors in 1998, adding more than 210,000 new residents. But the vast majority of new residents have moved to the county’s “development area” because housing in the rural area is intentionally restricted.
“There is a need for more supply, and our current comprehensive plan doesn't meet our needs,” McGettigan said. “We've run out of land for housing.”
The county’s draft of the updated land-use chapter was published for the first time Feb. 2, but it is already being criticized by local civic and environmental groups The Coalition to Protect Prince William County and the Prince William Conservation Alliance. Both organizations have fought for years to preserve the “rural crescent” in its current form.
Elena Schlossberg-Kunkel, executive director of The Coalition, said she was “shocked” to see the extent of the changes being proposed in the updated comprehensive plan, adding that the county’s proposals were not a reflection of community voices in the rural area.
"They don’t know what they’re doing,” Schlossberg said. “Everybody should be scared s---less.”
Kim Hosen, executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, and Schlossberg-Kunkel both said they believe the changes will increase suburban sprawl in Prince William County, causing more traffic and the need for road-widenings and other infrastructure improvements that could be a burden on the county’s budget.
“For over 20 years, the rural crescent has been the county’s best tool to combat sprawl development. The haphazard proposals we’re looking at now will take that tool out of the toolbox,” Hosen said.
The county’s “rural crescent” was created in 1998 with the intention of slowing the county’s growth. It was a highly contentious land-use decision that was most vociferously opposed by county supervisors representing the areas that would be most impacted by it – the Gainesville and Brentsville districts.
At the time of its creation, former county attorney Sharon Pandek claimed the “rural crescent” would slow the county’s already fast-growing population, reducing the 20-year projected population from 475,000 to 391,000 – a prediction that did not come to fruition.
Higher density residential development proposed outside the rural area
The changes to the rural area are only one piece of the county’s overall comprehensive plan land use update.
Within the development area, planners are proposing significant changes that would reimagine 10 specific areas of the county: Dumfries, Haymarket, Liberia Avenue at Prince William Parkway, mid-county area near the fairgrounds, Potomac Mills, Sudley Road at Interstate 66, the U.S. 1 corridor, Bethlehem Road and Yorkshire.
The update would allow for higher residential densities, new commercial and industrial areas and mixed-use development in some or all of those areas.
The county’s land use chapter update is expected to reach the Prince William County Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors as soon as May.
The planning office will be hosting an in-person community meeting on the Pathway to 2040 Comprehensive Plan Update on Thursday, Feb. 10 at the Beacon Hall Conference Center on the George Mason University SciTech Campus in Manassas.
Reach Daniel Berti at email@example.com