An aerial shot of a Bristow subdivision illustrates how new home construction has pushed toward the boundary of Prince William County's "rural crescent," where development is limited to one home per 10 acres. The county supervisors established the rural crescent in 1998 to limit residential growth. 

After a two-year hiatus, Prince William officials will resume discussion about the future of the county’s “rural crescent” with a public meeting set for Monday, June 24.

The meeting is the first in a series of gatherings aimed at “establishing a vision” for the rural crescent -- some 117,000 acres in the county’s northwest border that were set aside for preservation back in 1998 through a policy that limits development to one home per 10 acres and generally prohibits new connections to the public sewer line.

Rebecca Horner, director of Prince William County’s planning office, said the goal is to help county residents find common ground.

“Our goal is consensus, so we will have as many meetings as we need to get to it,” Horner said Monday.

The challenge, of course, is that residents have different views about how to best preserve the county’s dwindling farmland and undeveloped areas. On one side are those who favor no change to the current rural crescent development rules. Others, including some large landowners, want more flexible rules that would allow some of the land to be developed.

The county hired a consultant in 2013 to conduct a “rural preservation study.” The study assessed the county’s current policy and suggested changes that might better preserve the rural area, much of which has already been divvied up into 10-acre plots. 

In September 2016, the board voted to direct the planning department to further study a few of the study’s suggestions, including: 

  • Denser “cluster developments” to double the existing ratio of 10 homes per 100 acres to a proposed 20 homes per 100 acres. The strategy is meant to consolidate open space in larger parcels by directing residential development in smaller “clusters.”
  • Denser development in areas the study deemed “transitional ribbons” between the rural crescent and the “development area.”
  • A “purchase of development rights” and/or “transfer of development rights” program. The former would use tax dollars to pay rural landowners not to develop their land while the latter would allow developers to pay rural landowners for the right to develop more densely in the county’s development area.

Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, said Monday she will watch the progress of the meetings closely. Much of Lawson’s district is in the rural crescent.

Lawson said she remains opposed to denser cluster developments and has already signed the “rural crescent pledge,” a promise to support no changes in existing rules. The pledge was drawn up by a group called Preserve the Rural Crescent. The group opposes denser cluster developments, which they see as a way to open the rural crescent to the creep of even more extensive development.

Lawson acknowledged that residents seem firmly divided into two camps: those who are in favor of change and those who are content with the status quo.

“I think the first step is learning and understanding each other’s positions and then we’ll go from there,” Lawson said. “It’s my understanding that the consultant is experienced in matters like these. … They certainly have their work cut out for them.”

The county’s planning staff has been working for two years on draft policies that would incorporate the recommendations supervisors approved for further study into the revised “comprehensive plan,” a blueprint for county land use that is updated every 10 years.

The process was placed on hold in early 2018 -- officially because the state legislature was debating whether to change the 2016 proffer law, which limits what localities can ask of housing developers to offset the impact of new residents. The General Assembly was considering whether to allow counties to demand “impact fees” in conjunction with rezonings for new housing.

The fees could have created a monetary source for the purchase of development rights program.

But the hiatus was also politically convenient in that it kept Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, from having to vote on possible changes to the rural crescent policy during his 2018 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Now that the General Assembly has adjourned without adding impact fees – and with the spring primary season in the rear-view mirror – the time seems ripe to revisit the rural crescent proposals. 

Horner denied that the timing had anything to do with the political calendar.

But Lawson conceded the elections likely played a part in the delay.

“Not by me,” Lawson said when asked whether the process was intentionally delayed. “But yeah, I think there were other board members who would rather not have the big policy discussions” before an election.

“This has been an ongoing process for years. I think we need to continue it,” Lawson added. “I definitely think we need to continue moving forward.”

The announcement of the meeting came as a surprise to some who have long been involved in the rural crescent discussions.

Kim Hosen, executive director of the nonprofit Prince William Conservation Alliance, said she was expecting the planning department to release draft language on the proposed rural crescent changes before further discussions took place.

Hosen notes the community has been discussing the rural crescent for years now.

“Perhaps after they show their draft would be a more appropriate time to have a community meeting,” Hosen said. “Then there would be something to discuss.”

Horner said it’s likely the board of supervisors won’t vote on the revisions until after the fall elections and perhaps in early 2020. At least half of the eight-member board won’t return to office next year, as Stewart and Supervisor Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac, have declined to seek re-election and Supervisors Marty Nohe, R-Coles, and Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, lost their re-election bids to primary challengers.

The June 24 meeting will be held in the atrium of the county's Development Services Building, which is behind the James J. McCoart Administration Building, at 5 County Complex Court, Woodbridge. The meeting is scheduled from 5 to 8 p.m. Participants will likely work in small groups, Horner said.

The size of the audience won’t be limited, but those who plan to attend are asked to RSVP to planning@pwcgov.orgwith a response of "will attend" or "may attend" so they can get an idea of staffing, seating and refreshment needs.

Correction: This story has been updated to note that the the Rural Crescent Pledge originated with a group called Preserve the Rural Crescent, not Friends of the Rural Crescent Energized, or FORCE. 

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i am glad that two pro growth candidates lost Principi and Nohe.

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