In order to understand the continued relevance of Prince William County’s “rural crescent” as a land-use tool for the benefit of all residents, it is important to understand the premises upon which it was founded.
These were: to slow residential development in areas where the supporting infrastructure was not available, to preserve an area with open space for ground-water recharge and water/air quality preservation, and to protect a threatened rural economy. After 25 years, these are still desirable and achievable goals.
At the time of its inception, Prince William was considered a "bedroom community" where people who worked closer to Washington could find a less expensive place to live. Property taxes were lower, for instance. The problem this created was that taxes on residential development did not pay for the required services, and therefore the county had trouble keeping up with roads, schools, police, and other services needed to support the residents.
This is still true! Unlike Fairfax County, which boasts massive employment centers and revenue-generating areas like Tysons Corner, Prince William has not yet achieved a commercial and business tax base that can offset residential expenses. When houses are built in areas with no existing supportive infrastructure, the required new services drain resources from existing residential areas, which negatively affects all Prince William residents.
Another goal of the rural crescent is to protect open space for environmental reasons, one of which is groundwater protection. Pavement and rooftops generate excessive storm water runoff that damages properties through flooding and erosion and eliminates essential recharge areas for groundwater. Public water resources are limited in the county and therefore well water is an important resource.
Residents who are not connected to public water lines require groundwater levels that are within reach of their wells. This need has not changed since the rural crescent was put in place. If anything, increasing temperatures make rainfall less predictable with increased possibility of prolonged drought. Simultaneously, individual storms have become more intense, causing unprecedented storm water problems. Mitigating these issues requires public funds that could be used for other purposes.
Now is not the time to ease measures that protect the environment.
A third goal of the rural crescent is to protect a rural economy by preserving an area with large lots and lower land values to keep land taxes low. A 10-acre minimum lot size and a restriction on public sewer and water were the primary tools available to the county to realize this goal.
Originally it was believed that there were not enough septic system sites in the "agricultural/estate" area to develop a significant number of 10-acre lots. Surprisingly, the state of Virginia approved new septic systems that allow for development of many more 10-acre lots, which have been and still are very marketable.
These houses use private well and septic systems (not public), and the density is far lower than in other parts of the county. While this has not preserved a traditional rural economy, it has provided options for farmers who no longer wish to farm.
Although some farm operations and other agri-businesses such as wineries are successful, Prince William farmers face the same problems as those faced by small farmers throughout the country, including changing weather patterns and wildly fluctuating prices. Furthermore, they are forever tempted by developers who want to build on less expensive land in the rural area and would offer a better price if only they could access public sewer, water, roads and services. The developers' sole purpose is to maximize their profits, and their onslaught on the rural crescent has been relentless.
Nevertheless, the basic reasons for the rural crescent remain unchanged: We are still trying to achieve a balance between tax revenue and high quality services for county residents; our need to protect groundwater and other resources is greater than ever; and there is still an opportunity to provide, if not a booming farm economy, a place where people have the option to own land and participate in rural activities. We must continue to resist efforts to chip away at the rural crescent or allow cracks and fissures that eventually abolish it to unleash the rampant development that benefits a few and hurts everyone else.
The writer has lived in the rural crescent for 36 years, where she and her husband raised two children. She is a landscape architect who recently retired from the Fairfax County Park Authority.