New rules for Rural Crescent in Prince William County suggested

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After receiving more than 700 comments from residents this summer, the county’s planning staff made recommendations Tuesday on what kind of development could be allowed in the Rural Crescent.

The proposed changes will have to be vetted by the county’s planning commission, and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has the final say.

Development in the Rural Crescent is currently limited to one unit per 10 acres. The board of county supervisors directed planning staff in 2016 to propose new recommendations coming out of the 2014 Rural Preservation Study.

Since planners outlined the study’s recommendations this summer, many residents have disagreed with any changes, while others have argued that new development guidelines will increase true preservation in the rural area that stretches from Quantico to Haymarket and beyond.

Extending across southern and western parts of Prince William from Marine Corps Base Quantico and Nokesville to Bull Run Mountain and communities northwest of Manassas, the Rural Crescent was created in 1998 to preserve open space and environmental and cultural resources, respect the rights of landowners and promote available farmland through easements and agritourism, according to county planning staff .

The proposed changes aim to incentivize rural uses in the county’s rural area, said Rebecca Horner, the county’s planning director, to a crowd of more than 150 residents.

Staff recommended that supervisors adopt a vision statement and create two county programs: a purchase of development rights and transfer of development rights.

Under the purchase of development rights ordinance, the county could buy properties of at least 20 acres in the Rural Crescent so the property can be placed in a permanent conservation easement. This option would require that the county find funding to buy development rights from property owners and it is also voluntary for property owners, Horner said.

Due to “potentially limited funding,” this program would not be an effective tool to encourage rural preservation on its own, so planners also recommend other tools to be adopted, Horner said.

County staff recommended to adopt an ordinance to create a transfer of development rights program. Under this program, property owners can place their property under a permanent conservation easement, paid for by a developer who would then be able to increase the size and scope of an unrelated development beyond what is allowed by county zoning.

Staff said developers could transfer rights to limited areas in the Rural Crescent, or to other locations in the county outside the Rural Crescent or even outside of the county. If rights are transferred to the Rural Crescent, a development would be limited to single-family homes on a single acre with 60% of the land dedicated in a conservation easement.

If a developer is building outside of the Rural Crescent, it would be limited to multifamily housing. In the county’s agriculture and forest rural character area, properties could be transferred at a density of one residence per 5 acres. In the county’s estates and subdivisions rural character area, housing units could be built at one per 3 acres.

“Staff believes this is a more effective tool to preserve open space because it incentivizes use of the program and allows private citizens to fund the transfer through a development right purchasing process,” according to staff’s recommendations.

They also recommend creating an Arts and Agritourism Overlay District, which would allow for “arts and agritourism activities to occur in a more flexible policy environment,” according to county planners.

Staffers also recommend the creation of a new zoning classification called Conservation Residential, which would allow for public sewer if 60% of the property is dedicated in a permanent conservation easement.

To obtain the Conservation Residential zoning, developers would have to apply for the property in the Rural Crescent to be rezoned, which would require money spent to mitigate the development’s impact on roads, schools, etc. This zoning would also require a buffer around the property where sewer easements aren’t allowed.

Horner said staff’s recommendations will head to the planning commission to consider Oct. 23 at a work session. After that meeting, the commission will hold a public hearing and could vote to approve, approve with changes, deny or defer the proposed development changes to the Rural Crescent.

That means the board of county supervisors will consider the proposed Rural Crescent changes in the first three months of 2020, at the earliest, Horner said.

Coles district resident Peter Rodford said he is interested in what will preserve forest and farmland in the Rural Crescent. He is also concerned about the impact on levels of service, including police and fire and rescue, if development rules are relaxed.

Karen Sheehan, director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, said county staff have a long way to go to live up to their purpose of preserving the Rural Crescent. Staff’s recommendations would benefit a few and not all residents, she said.

“It’s very clear they say the want to preserve farms, but do nothing to incentivize farmers who want to farm or protect citizens who want to live without sprawl,” Sheehan said. “I think they’ll get more input and go on for awhile. People are waking up and they’re going to hear from a lot more people who are unhappy with what’s being proposed.”

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