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The Prince William School Board won’t weigh in -- for now – about changes to the county’s rural crescent that could add as many as 10,000 new homes and about 7,000 new students to local schools.

During its regular meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 18, the school board voted 5 to 3, along party lines, against a resolution to oppose four proposed zoning changes as well as any “additional efforts to redevelop the rural crescent that may be brought forward.”

The resolution was introduced by two school board members whose districts would be directly affected by the zoning changes: Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville) and Willie Deutsch (Coles). 

Deutsch made the motion to pass the resolution, which was seconded by School Board member Gil Trenum, whose Brentsville District is also part of the rural crescent.

All three were endorsed by the local Republican Committee and were the only school board members to vote in favor of the resolution.

All five school board members endorsed by local Democrats -- Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef (at large), Diane Raulson (Neabsco), Lillie Jessie (Occoquan), Justin Wilk (Potomac) and Loree Williams (Woodbridge) -- voted against it.

In the debate before the vote, Satterwhite, who is challenging Lateef for school board chair in the Nov. 5 election, said the school board must send a message to county officials that adding residential density to the rural crescent would burden schools with more students at a time when schools are already overcrowded.

Prince William County has 184 portable classroom trailers parked outside local schools this fall.

“I’m very concerned that if we get into a huge amount of development in the rural crescent, we’re busting our [capital improvement plan],” Satterwhite said. She added that the school division’s future building plans do not anticipate significant residential growth in the rural crescent.

The rural crescent includes a total of 117,000 acres that stretch from the Quantico Marine Corps base to the Manassas battlefield. 

The Prince William Board of Supervisors is considering zoning changes to about 72,000 acres of the rural crescent that would boost density beyond the current limit of one home per 10 acres. 

In an effort aimed at preserving larger tracts of land, county officials were considering changes that could allow “cluster zoning” and a “transfer of development rights” programs that would allow more homes to be built in some areas of the rural crescent if larger tracts – 50 acres or more – are preserved in conservation easements.

Under the area’s existing “agricultural” zoning, the area could eventually hold an additional 2,783 homes by right, which would add 1,813 more students, according to the Prince William County Planning Department.

Under the most aggressive changes initially up for discussion, an area dubbed the “transition ribbon” – a stretch of 4,000 acres on the eastern edge of the rural crescent -- could be targeted for as many as 10,400 new homes. That change could result in a population boost of more than 30,000 residents and an estimated 6,700 new students, according to county documents.

That number of new students is enough to fill one additional high school, two middle schools and three elementary schools, all of which are estimated to cost at least $391 million, according to the proposed resolution.

It’s not known when the county supervisors will formally consider changes to the rural crescent zoning rules. The planning department is expected to announce which ideas will move forward for further debate at an upcoming public meeting set for Tuesday, Sept. 24, at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

Deutsch noted the school division needs its enrollment to “level off” – not grow significantly -- if it has any hope of refurbishing older schools or building enough classroom space to get rid of portable classroom trailers and ease class sizes.

But other school board members pushed back against the resolution, saying that it is not in the school board’s purview to weigh in on the supervisors’ land-use decisions. 

Williams called it “meddling in someone else’s territory.”

“I hate to see us get caught up in something that it is a trend discussion when it really is not our area,” she added.

Williams also noted that the school division issues “development impact statements” to state how new residential developments will impact area schools. In recent years, the school board has used those statements to explicitly oppose several new residential developments on the grounds that the school division, on an overall basis, is overcrowded across the county.

In response to Williams’ remarks, Trenum and Deutsch pointed out that if the supervisors change the underlying zoning designations in the rural crescent, additional residential development would be allowed by right – meaning no rezonings would be required. 

In that scenario, the school division would have no opportunity to offer input, they said.

“We’re not going to have development impact statements,” Deutsch said. “… That’s why this is our only time to act.”

Williams then noted the rural crescent is not the only area of the county facing more residential development. Under a series of “small area plans” now being considered by county officials, residential density in North Woodbridge, one of the county’s key transit centers, could rise exponentially. 

“… I’m already drowning in overcrowding,” Williams said of her Woodbridge District. “If we’re really going to make a statement, it should be on the eastern side of the county where apartment buildings are going up at lightning speed. … I think, as a board, if we’re going to make a statement, it should be countywide.”

Both Lateef and Jessie took issue with some of the resolution’s “whereas clauses,” particularly those crediting both boards with “working collaboratively to reduce trailers and class sizes.”

Jessie noted that the school board and board of supervisors have been working jointly for two years to debate a $174 million plan to rid the county of its classroom trailers but are now at an impasse.

Lateef said the board of supervisors, which currently has a 6-to-2 Republican majority, showed “zero appetite to fund” the trailer plan during budget talks last spring.

“To say that we have worked with them… We have succeeded in spite of them, I think that’s more accurate … to address this long-term, systemic overcrowding” in the school division, Lateef said.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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