The Prince William Board of County Supervisors took office last January with six new members and ambitious goals to tackle longstanding countywide issues only to see them temporarily scuttled by the coronavirus pandemic and other issues.
Now, nearly a year later, both Democrats and Republicans on the board are trying to make up for lost time.
In the last few months, the board has issued ambitious directives to county staff that could have long range impacts on how transportation projects, affordable housing, public health, environmental sustainability and land-use planning are addressed at the county level.
The directives include replacing the county’s current, state-funded health district with a county-run health department; creating a transportation advisory commission; enacting new affordable housing policies and preserving more forest and agricultural land.
Many of these new initiatives are in the early planning stages and are expected to come before the board for discussion in the coming months.
Supervisor Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge, said board directives are “the first step in getting a policy put in place.”
“We have a brand-new board that wants to do new things in the county. Whether there was a pandemic or not you were probably going to see some big initiatives,” Franklin said.
Establishing a county health department
Prince William County officials will begin examining how the county could establish a locally run and funded health department to replace the current state-funded health district in the coming months.
If adopted, Prince William County would join several other Virginia localities, including Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, in having its own health department not overseen by the state government. About 55% of the Prince William Health District’s funding comes from the state, while 45% comes from the county.
Franklin asked county staff to begin the process of establishing a local health department in October. She said the initiative came out of “realizing the limitations” of the county’s current health district during the pandemic.
“My eyes were opened when COVID took off. All the questions I would ask, the response would be, ‘Well, the health the district has to get resources from the state.’ At a certain point, that becomes a burden,” Franklin said.
The Prince William Health District has been underfunded and short-staffed for more than a decade following Great Recession-era budget cuts. The health district’s 2020 budget is nearly half of what it was in 2007.
District director Dr. Alison Ansher said earlier this year that many positions were lost in 2007 “with the downturn of the economy” and that some positions frozen during the recession “are still frozen” today.
Franklin said creating a county health department will likely be a costly, multi-year effort.
It’s not going to be cheap. But I think it’s important,” Franklin said.
Citizen scrutiny of transportation projects
County staff is working on several initiatives that would require county transportation projects to undergo more scrutiny and study before they reach the board for approval.
Supervisor Yesli Vega, R-Coles, directed staff to investigate creating a transportation advisory commission that would seek citizen oversight and recommendations regarding the county’s transportation planning and decision-making.
The commission’s purview would include multi-modal transportation planning that considers geography, land-use policies and future planning, Vega said.
“It’s obvious to anyone driving around Prince William County that ‘land use’ and ‘transportation’ have rarely been uttered in the same sentence by those in power. As a result, our residents have paid the price with worsening traffic and gridlock on our roads,” Vega said. “The point of this commission is to provide an extra layer of protection for our residents from potentially poor and reckless decisions that would continue to contribute to this problem.”
Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, directed county staff in July to consider empowering the county Planning Commission “to analyze and assist in the development of recommendations regarding transportation projects and decisions.”
The Planning Commission currently does not make recommendations about transportation projects.
Both directives were a result of the board’s discussion and approval of the contentious Va. 28 bypass and a comprehensive plan amendment to study the widening of the existing Va. 28 in Manassas.
An affordable housing ordinance
Franklin directed county staff to begin drafting an affordable housing ordinance, a first for the county, that would require developers to offer a certain percentage of affordable dwelling units in their projects.
County staff are studying a proposal for a new ordinance that could be brought to the board next spring. Details about what the ordinance might require of developers in terms of units set aside for affordable or workforce housing, or what income brackets would be eligible, have yet to be determined.
“This is incredibly important to this new board because it has never been legislated on before,” Franklin said. “We will bring affordability to this county, finally.”
Housing costs have been on the rise across the region, exacerbated by a low housing inventory and an influx of new residents. Franklin said “people don’t want to pay north of $2,000 for an apartment” in Prince William County.
“You’re paying thousands of dollars in rent, not even a mortgage. And that’s something we need to rectify,” Franklin said. “We have to think about the young professionals and the moderate-income individuals. They may have a stable job, but they may not be able to afford the prices that you’re seeing in some of these apartments.”
Prince William County Deputy County Executive Rebecca Horner said the county will hire a consultant to assist in the process of developing a new ordinance. Horner said it will likely require a percentage of units in every development to be affordable across a range of income levels.
“Our goal is to have a very inclusive, affordable housing ordinance that allows opportunities for all people to get in all housing types,” Horner said. “We want everybody to have equal opportunities to purchase in a neighborhood so that we don't have neighborhoods that are single demographics.”
At-large Chair Ann Wheeler added that Prince William stands out as one of the few Northern Virginia locales that lacks such an ordinance.
“Across the region, it’s huge. Especially because the housing market is so tight. The housing prices keep going up and affordable housing just keeps getting further out of reach of a whole segment of our current residents,” Wheeler said. “We really need a diverse mix of housing coming in.”
Preserving green space
The county is also studying several initiatives to slow development and preserve green space at the request of Brenstville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R), including an effort to expand the county’s Agricultural and Forestal Districts.
Lawson asked county staff to find new ways to incentivize landowners’ participation in the districts, which encourage the preservation of open space through tax breaks and exemptions from local restrictions on farming practices. There are currently three such districts in the county, covering more than 2,400 acres.
Lawson said the district contributes “significantly to our community's rural appeal and character.”
“I issued the directive to raise awareness about a program which has environmental and economic benefits for the county. I want to make sure Prince William County has a robust program, and to achieve that, we need to grow awareness and participation in the rural area,” Lawson said.
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