Monday, December 21, 2015

Keeping the Rural Crescent Rural



Last week I was part of a presentation to the Planning Commission in support of rural economic development using both the comprehensive plan and zoning regulations. I spoke representing the Prince William Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District in my role as Director. Our agricultural programs reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to our streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, and are the cheapest way to reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. Also, agricultural land and forests contribute less pollution per acre than suburban or urban landscapes. Reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution is necessary to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and all the Bay states are under a mandate from the U.S. EPA.

It is often believed that when you own land you can do what you want with the land, but that is not true. It is not in the public interest to allow anyone to put a hazardous waste dump in their backyard, build a manufacturing plant along the Occoquan, or other publicly undesirable activities. So, we have zoning and the county has a comprehensive plan to guide land use and development decisions that are made by the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors. Virginia law requires every governing body to adopt a comprehensive plan for the development of the lands within its jurisdiction. So each county and city has a comprehensive plan. These plans are reviewed every five years, to ensure that they continue to be responsive to current circumstances and that the citizens of the county continue to support the goals of the plan. Our presentation was to provide information to the Planning Commission for the revision of the comprehensive plan.

The current version of the comprehensive plan only mentions the Rural Crescent as requiring each single family home to have 10 acres; it does not address economic development in the Rural Crescent. There must be a viable rural economy to preserve what remains of the rural landscape in Prince William County. The rural economy is much more than traditional farming, which is now in decline in the County. There remains only about 50 square miles of agricultural land - all of it within the Rural Crescent. The rural economy includes innovative agriculture, horticulture, forestry, commercial and non-commercial horse operations, tourism, rural based public and commercial recreation, and farm related businesses. Think of Napa, California as our aspirational goal rather than becoming a mini-me Fairfax County.

At current prices, commodity crops can no longer be grown profitably in Prince William County. Yet, the rural economic sectors are growing in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties and have the potential to grow substantially in Prince William. Collectively agricultural businesses could contribute in a meaningful way to Prince William’s economy and provide a significant number of local jobs. The County’s suburban citizens benefit from the proximity of rural based activities and services and desire it as indicated in the survey of residents.

Agricultural land contributes directly to the protection and enhancement of the green infrastructure and contributes to the quality of life of all of Prince William residents. To help agriculture continue in Prince William we need to focus on rural economic development and preservation of the ecology of the Rural Crescent. The unique ecological benefits of the area’s green infrastructure include; the recharge of groundwater, maintaining and building soil quality and preventing erosion, protecting and improving surface water quality by properly managed lands, providing wildlife habitat, and preserving the physical environment.

Whether or not continued residential growth will seriously deplete groundwater supplies is an open issue. But the failure of groundwater supplies or extensive contamination as happened in areas of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties; however, could destroy property values and lead to enormous additional costs to homeowners and taxpayers and a lower quality of life for all. Loudoun Water is spending tens of millions of dollars to solve the water problems in Raspberry Falls and Selma communities alone.

The basic zoning that exists now in the Rural Crescent is A1- one house per 10 acres. The real problem is that highest and best use of the land in the current environment is developing homes. Cutting up the rural crescent into 10 acre parcels or even random clustered developments reduces public access and enjoyment of the land, reduces groundwater recharge, increases the potential for contamination, erodes the land by increasing the stormwater velocity over pavement, roadways, buildings and increases sediment flow into our rivers and our Bay.

A system of transferable development rights, TDRs, allows ownership of the development rights on privately owned land to be separated from ownership of the land itself. These rights can then be transferred from that property to another property in a different location that has been designated as a receiving area, where the Planning Commission wants increased development or redevelopment. Having transferred the development rights, the landowner is restricted from developing his land by a conservation easement or deed restriction. The buyer of the development rights uses them to develop another piece of property with more density than allowed by its comprehensive plan zoning. In this way, part of the value of the land is sold and the residual value at a lower cost can be used for farming.

The idea that a TDR program would, by itself, protect open space by simply offering a mechanism for moving development around is not realistic. There must also be rural economic development to support and encourage farming and related businesses. This commitment to the larger goals must be part of the comprehensive plan and a TDR program should be created, tailored to the specific economic and geographic circumstances and goals of the county.

Maintaining the farms and agricultural way of life keeps larger blocks of land that allows the migration and movement of wildlife, and allows us to implement our programs to improve soil and water quality on larger land areas. It is simply easier for one farmer to manage his lands than to try to organize hundreds of homeowners to implement (and pay for) improvements to stop the erosion of streambanks.

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