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Supervisors vote to allow rural landowners to sell their development rights

Board adopts part of the proposed rural preservation plan, but put the brakes on new zoning designations

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Prince William County board of supervisors May 4 meeting

Members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors listen during their May 4 meeting as residents speak about proposed changes to county land-use policies. 

Prince William County supervisors unanimously approved a purchase of development rights program Tuesday evening aimed at permanently conserving rural land in the county but rejected several other rural preservation proposals over concerns about increased housing development. 

The vote was the culmination, in part, of more than five years of conflict between rural area residents and local elected officials over how best to preserve the county’s rural land. 

The purchase of development rights, or PDR program, would allow landowners to voluntarily sell their properties’ development rights to the county to permanently shield their land from future development. It was the only proposal discussed during the May 4 board meeting that achieved widespread support from county residents and supervisors. 

“I am thrilled that we appear to be adopting a purchase of development rights program. I have been waiting years for this,” said Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville. 

PDR programs are typically funded from local tax dollars and federal and state grants. In neighboring Fauquier County, a PDR program is funded through a designated tax levy. No funding stream nor timeline has yet been identified for the county’s program, however. 

Following the approval of the PDR program, the board rejected a comprehensive plan amendment to create new designations within the county’s rural area, also known as the “rural crescent.” They then sent county staff back to the drawing board to continue work on a transfer of development rights program and a rural cluster zoning designation. 

Dozens of rural area residents, conservationists, farmers and developers spoke both for and against the proposals – but the vast majority were opposed. 

Conservation groups, including the Prince William Conservation Alliance, Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, raised concerns that any plan other than the PDR program would lead to housing sprawl withing the rural area. 

“This is not a preservation plan,” said Julie Bolthouse, a land use representative with the Piedmont Environmental Council. 

Housing and commercial land developers, including nearly a dozen people who would like the county to allow data centers in the rural area near Pageland Lane, said the plan was too restrictive. Some, like local housing developer Mark Granville Smith, said they would like to eliminate the county’s rural boundary entirely. 

The rural boundary was created in 1998. It allows only 10-acre homes with no public sewer access on about 33% of the county’s entire landmass in the western part of Prince William. 

Several local farmers, including some who are hoping to sell their farms, were in favor of the plan. But Helen Taylor, president of the Prince William-Fairfax Farm Bureau, said she “would like the board to take a fresh look at the county.”

County staff recommended approving the entire rural area plan. County Planning Director Parag Agrawal said all four components of the plan “are good land conservation and smart growth tools.” But county supervisors decided to hold off on any approval of a transfer of development rights program and rural cluster zoning designations until the county could come up with something more agreeable. 

“I think most of us agree we need more tools in the toolbox,” said Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan. 

Board Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At Large, said eliminating the proposed rural area comprehensive plan amendments would give the board a “blank slate” moving forward. Wheeler said she remains supportive of creating rural cluster zoning, a transfer of development rights and making changes to the comprehensive plan’s land-use chapter. But she said the proposals in front of the board were out of date.

“The plan needs to go down a silent death,” Wheeler said before calling for the vote.

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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