More than 100 people packed Guiseppe’s restaurant Monday night, but the crowd wasn’t there for the Haymarket eatery’s baked pasta or spaghetti. They were there to discuss the “rural crescent” and possible changes some say could threaten its 80,000 acres with more development.
Organized by the Prince William Conservation Alliance, the discussion, dubbed “Keep Your Green,” was a kickoff of sorts to the debate the Prince William Board of Supervisors is expected to take up this fall over changes to current rural crescent zoning rules that restrict development to one home per 10 acres while generally forbidding connections to the public water and sewer.
Established in 1998, the rural crescent was meant to slow development in the Prince William’s northern and western stretches to concentrate population growth in the southern and eastern areas of the county.
But the supervisors called for a study in 2012 to assess how those rules are working and whether they are doing enough to protect rural land.
Completed in 2014, the study recommended the county consider changes to guide rural development in future years. In September 2016, the board voted to direct the planning department to further study a few specific ideas:
Allowing denser “cluster developments” in the rural crescent that could double the allowed existing ratio of 10 homes per 100 acres to a proposed 20 homes per 100 acres.
Allowing denser development in areas the study deemed “transitional ribbons” around the rural crescent -- areas already more densely developed because of building that predates the rural crescent.
Funding a “purchase of development rights” program using county tax dollars to pay rural landowners to conserve their land.
Facilitating a “transfer of development rights” program to allow developers to purchase development credits from rural crescent property owners.
County officials will release a draft of the zoning text amendments July 27 for public review ahead of three public meetings planned for September, said Kim Hosen, executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance.
Cluster developments, ‘transitional ribbon’
Speakers at the forum expressed concerns about whether the changes would chip away at rural crescent protections while also burdening the county’s already overcrowded schools with more students.
Martin Jeter, president of the Mid-County Civic Association, spoke out against denser development in the “transitional ribbons” as well as more intense cluster zoning. Jeter said he feared the transitional areas would be “ill-defined,” allowing development to creep into the rural crescent.
Regarding cluster zoning, Jeter noted that doubling the allowed density would make it harder to connect undeveloped land for wildlife corridors, farming and open space. Jeter predicted that both issues would be “front and center” in the upcoming public debate about the future of the rural crescent.
“These are going to be the two hot-button issues,” Jeter said. “If these are adopted, they would add homes to the rural crescent, they would create a need for additional services and additional taxes and they would disrupt existing land-use patterns on both sides of the rural crescent.”
Prince William County School Board member Gil Trenum (Brentsville) noted that county schools are already expecting an additional 12,000 students over the next 10 years even without the allowing more homes in the rural crescent. Trenum also reminded the crowd that the most recent estimate to alleviate existing overcrowding and rid county schools of their 200 classroom trailers is pegged at about $300 million.
Soil and Water Conservation Board member Elizabeth Ward warned that Prince William County is slowly depleting its groundwater aquifers, and that public-water providers are already preparing to add reservoirs to keep up with existing growth.
What about the farmers?
Rural landowners at the meeting, however, asked how the planned changes would help farmers, especially those pressed by market changes that have made farming less profitable. Wade House, whose family owns Dutchland dairy farm, said allowing land to be developed in the transitional ribbon “would help us some.”
“If we’re not going to allow this land to be developed, we need to pay the farmers correctly and compensate them for not developing the property,” House said. “…I’m not advocating that we just build up Prince William County. But what I am advocating is that as we go through this, we remember there are people who need to be treated fair.”
Hosen noted the rural crescent study found that more than 70 percent of respondents said they agreed with the idea of investing tax dollars to preserving the county’s rural area.
“Transfer of development rights is one thing on the table, purchase of development rights is another thing that would allow you to cash out from your property and still farm,” she added.
Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th, noted western Prince William residents have successfully waged other fights against perceived threats to the rural crescent, including against the Bi-County Parkway, which was removed from Prince William County’s comprehensive plan, and the Dominion Energy power lines, which will now be partially buried as a result of legislation Hugo attached to a larger bill retooling state rules regulating Dominion electricity rates.
The challenge now, Hugo said, is for residents to convey a united message to the county supervisors.
“There’s a way to fight all these things, but you have to say what you want,” Hugo said. “Do you want homes on 5-acre lots? On 10-acre lots? Or do you want Burke? Do you want Reston?”
The arguments made sense to Bethanne Kim, a resident of the rural crescent, who said overcrowded schools and groundwater supplies are her biggest concerns.
“The important thing is just to preserve the rural crescent,” Kim said. “It’s pretty simple. Our schools are already extremely overcrowded. It doesn’t make sense to make matters worse.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org