Some say Prince William County’s rural crescent is at a critical crossroads; that time is running out to preserve open space that is increasingly vulnerable to being divvied up into 10-acre residential lots.
That was the premise of the county board of supervisors’ decision back in 2013 to hire a private contractor to study the 117,000-acre rural area and recommend zoning changes that might better help the county preserve its recovering forests and remaining farmland.
Last month, about two weeks after the June 13 primary, the county kicked off a new round of meetings about the rural crescent.
The second was held July 30 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. That’s when the county planning office unveiled a handful of proposals that could be part of the county’s new comprehensive plan if they are approved by both the planning commission and the board of supervisors.
The ideas include “cluster zoning,” which would allow sewer connections to new homes clustered on smaller lots (3 to 5 acres) situated on larger tracts of land provided that either 50 or 60 percent of the total acreage is preserved in a conservation easement.
Also on the table are programs that would allow large-tract landowners to transfer or sell their development rights to either the county or to residential housing developers. In the latter scenario, developers who purchase development rights would be granted permission to build more densely in about 4,000 acres along the edge of the rural crescent in an area that would be dubbed the “transitional ribbon.” The proposals are detailed in a story on page 1.
The upside of these ideas is that they could make zoning rules even more restrictive in areas that remain zoned A-1 or agricultural. In concert with some of the changes, development would be limited to one home per 50 acres instead of one home per 10 acres.
The county is also looking to create an “arts and agritourism overlay district” in the rural area and make changes to the existing land-use tax policy, which would enhance tax breaks for those who conserve their land or use it for farming or rural uses.
The county is now collecting public comments on the ideas until Friday, Aug. 16. A final list of proposals will be presented in a third meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 24, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., also at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.
While some of the ideas appear to have merit, the real question now is whether rural crescent residents trust in county officials enough to move forward.
Many residents of western Prince William – perhaps a majority – have grown wary over recent years about whether county officials have any desire to truly preserve the county’s dwindling open space.
It’s hard to blame them. In the last decade, various rezonings and special-use permits have allowed Patriot High School, T. Clay Wood Elementary School and a few large churches to be built in the rural crescent. The supervisors have also allowed dense residential neighborhoods – including Braemar and Avendale – to skirt right up against the rural crescent’s boundaries, eliminating any buffer between the rural and development areas.
The supervisors even effectively relocated the rural crescent boundary by shifting the location of Vint Hill Road.
The rural crescent has also fallen victim to political considerations. It was widely suspected that board of supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, sought to avoid a discussing changes to the rural crescent in 2016, 2017 and 2018 during his (failed) campaigns for Virginia governor and the U.S. Senate. That’s when Stewart needed both votes from the county’s Republican-leaning areas (in and around the rural crescent) and donations from area residential developers -- two groups that generally don’t see eye-to-eye on the best way to preserve open space in the rural crescent.
Perhaps this lack of trust between people and government officials is a sign of the times. According to the Pew Research Center, only about 17 percent of Americans say they can trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always.”
Whatever the cause, it’s clear that county leaders will have to work to rebuild the trust of residents of the rural crescent before any changes are considered politically viable.