Prince William board approves housing development in ‘Rural Crescent’

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The Prince William Board of County Supervisors removed two critical hurdles for a plan to build 99 homes on land that’s currently part of the county’s “Rural Crescent,” clearing the way for what’s being dubbed The Preserve at Long Branch development in two early-morning votes Wednesday.

Over objections from the three Republicans who represent the western part of the county that includes the protected rural area, the board voted 5-3 to approve a comprehensive plan amendment and a rezoning application from developer Mark Granville-Smith to allow for increased density at the development site. The rezoning changed the designation of the project’s 340 acres from agricultural to semi-rural residential, although currently the land is unfarmed and most is undeveloped and wooded.

The land is, however, a part of what the county has designated the rural area, which has restrictive land use designations and a limit of one home per 10 acres of land.

Under the developer’s plans, no new land would be added into the rural area for additional future protections. But to make up for the 167 acres developed with the additional density, 170 acres would be donated to the county as parkland, with a public access point to the Occoquan River, south of Lake Jackson. All told, the area, generally known as the “Rural Crescent,” covers roughly 117,000 acres, or 52% of the county’s land mass.

During Tuesday night’s board meeting, most community members speaking in opposition to the development expressed concerns about traffic, overcrowding in schools, and a loss of the Rural Crescent’s less-developed character that was laid out when the county formally created the designation in 1998. They also expressed a fear that if the board designated even small parts of the area for denser development with sewer access, a slippery slope would quickly lead to further encroachment of the county’s rural land and the infiltration of its waterways.

Others said that the development failed on the smart growth criteria the county adopted in its last comprehensive plan due to a lack of public transit access and walkability. County planning staff recommended rejection of the amendment, in part on that basis. The county’s planning commission voted against both the comprehensive plan amendment and the rezoning application.

Other concerns of opponents have included an increase in commuter traffic on Dumfries Road, an increase of vehicle traffic to access to the proposed park area, the potential for through traffic between Classic Springs Road and Classic Lakes Way, the potential impact to the water table and existing wells in nearby residential areas, the potential impact to the local school population and the impact on the local wildlife population, according to a staff review.

Coles District Supervisor Yesli Vega, whose district includes the project site, called the approval “unethical.”

“We’ve been told that this is a unique situation, it is not. It is only unique in the sense that it doesn’t replace acreage in the Rural Crescent, it just takes from it,” she said. “The development proposal does not match the current comprehensive plan or any other comprehensive plans over the last 22 years. … Why would we break our own rules just to make an exception for million-dollar homes?”

Granville-Smith and his attorney indicated that homes in the development would be priced at $750,000 and up.

Although fewer in number, the members of the public speaking in favor of the project lauded the potential for the public park space and access to the Occoquan River, which county Parks, Recreation and Tourism staff said is currently lacking. Some supporters also said that allowing more density in small pockets of the Rural Crescent would ultimately help to preserve the larger remaining area.

Democrats who voted in favor of the proposal said that the western part of the county needed to shoulder more of the burden of the county’s development, and that having so much of the area blocked off from development isn’t balanced.

“Equity is not preserving a certain spot in our county and then placing the development … in other areas of the county,” Potomac District Supervisor Andrea Bailey said. “For me, equity is balancing that development.”

Board Chair Ann Wheeler said that she wanted to preserve open space in the county, but space that was publicly accessible rather than limited to the homeowners in the area only.

“The decisions that were made 20 years ago to put development only into certain areas of the county in many ways has been harmful. … By saying we have exclusionary zoning throughout the western end of the county, it affects the entire county,” she added. “I campaigned on open space accessible to everyone throughout the county and not just a few people.”

A number of supervisors questioned the developers’ plan to build a sewage system operated by the Prince William County Service Authority. The comprehensive plan and a 2014 Rural Preservation Study Report call for strictly limiting such access. But on Tuesday, Granville-Smith and his attorney said that the sewage system would be built in such a way that would make it difficult for additional developments to piggy-back off its access in the future, and that this development on its own made up just a small amount of the overall rural area land.

“We have to make sure that we defend the rural area tonight by not allowing the sewer line to go out there,” Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson said before the vote. “If we allow the sewer line to go out there tonight, I guarantee this is just going to be the first domino that’s going to fall. There’s going to be other applications going to this board and we’re going to see what I would call a spider network or network.”

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