An online survey, three public meetings, several focus groups and a daylong, interactive workshop guided a Rural Preservation Study which showed that a wide range of people from across the county support maintaining a rural area.
The online survey results showed, among other things, that most respondents believe that a rural area should be used as a place for people to enjoy open space, a place to emphasize environmental protection, a place to celebrate the county’s historical heritage, and a place to be preserved as agricultural and forest land. Few people agreed that a rural area should be a place for future suburban development.
According to county documents, more than 200 people attended the meetings while nearly 400 people responded to the online survey questions. “There’s a strong sentiment that a rural area is important,” said Prince William County Planning Director Chris Price. “It’s something that we’ve heard from different groups from different areas of the county.”
Roughly, 26,299 acres, or 28 percent, of the rural area has been permanently preserved. The study showed that 37 percent of respondents believe that the preserved area is “about right,” while 42 percent believed that the number was “too low.” Of those who responded, 80 percent believed that a combination of public and private funds should be used for land preservation.
In a recent presentation of the study to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Price said that the goals of the study included providing an overview of the county’s rural preservation policies, identifying preservation tools that might be effective, and recommending possible amendments to the county’s land use policies.
Tools, or measures, that county planners might use to preserve the rural area include zoning and ordinances, purchase of development rights and transfer of development rights.
Transfer of development rights gives property owners the ability to accept compensation for transferring those rights to others who would then use them in other parts of the county. For transfer of development rights, a developer purchases the development rights from a property owner in a “sending area” and transfers them to a “receiving area.”
These areas would be identified in the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Payments for the transfer of development rights would offset any profit loss landowners might experience in giving up their development rights.
Purchase of development rights means that a local, state or federal government or non-profit would pay landowners to forgo their right to development in exchange for keeping their land in agricultural or conservation use.
The state allows jurisdictions to use those tools to preserve land, but Prince William County doesn’t currently employ such measures.
Another tool that might be used is clustering, which allows for lot sizes that are less than the usual minimum lot sizes, but with a large area set aside as open space. The county’s current ordinance allows clustering, but does not allow the overall density to exceed one unit per ten acres, whether for a conventional 10-acre lot subdivision or a cluster subdivision.
Clive Graham, a consultant with Environmental Research Management, the firm that conducted the study, said that the county would need to use purchase and transfer of development rights as well as alternative cluster development options if preserving land is the goal. “Zoning alone is not enough to achieve preservation goals unless you have very, very protective zoning like one unit per 50 or 60 acres. Unless you’re going to go that route, zoning alone is not enough. You need more tools.”
Current zoning allows for one house per 10 acres. “Our view, on balance, is that overall it has been a good policy. It did reduce the development capacity in the rural area,” Graham said of current zoning. However, Graham noted that the current polices have had some unintended consequences and that “Unless some policy changes are made, the rural area will likely continue to develop in a manner that’s dominated by large 10-acre-style lots with little connected, contiguous open space, and there’ll continue to be loss of agricultural land.”
Tom Daniels, with the University of Pennsylvania, also consulted on the study and told the supervisors “We think it would be a good idea for the county to review its agricultural ordinances, codes and regulations to make it more possible to develop more agricultural businesses here in the county.”
Daniels said that a U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that the value in output from agricultural land in the county increased from $10 million in 2007 to more than $12 million in 2012. Daniels also said that agriculture in the county has changed to alternative uses such wineries, strawberry farms and hydroponics.
Graham said that adopting some or all of the policies indicated by the study would contribute to land preservation. “If these recommendations are adopted, and implemented, we think that what you’ll get is a clear vision and an increase in preserved land. The existing zoning would largely stay in place. There would be more choices for landowners. There would be a modest increase in the number of dwelling units in the rural area, but that would be balanced by a significant increase in the amount of preserved land.”
The next steps will be for the Planning Office to review the consultants’ report and make recommendations to the Board of County Supervisors. If any action were to be taken on the County’s land use policies, it would have to be initiated by the Board and would be subject to public hearings before both the Planning Commission and the Board.