The “Open Space” Fraud Begins at Stone Haven – Hmmm…. Think It Will Continue Into the Rural Presevation Study?
Prince William County defines Open Space in the Comprehensive Plan (see page POS&T-24) as:
Land that is not dominated by man-made structures. It preserves natural or cultural resources, provides for passive recreation, is used for cultivated fields or forests, or exists in a natural and undeveloped state. Open space may include nature preserves, historic sites, farms, parks, forests, floodplains, wetlands, etc., and may include some structures, parking areas, roads, trails and facilities that support the use of the land.
“Some structures” is being interpreted so loosely by the Planning Department that the parking lot at Wal*Mart would qualify.
For example, the Stone Haven development application is proposing 1,650 homes and more than 1 million sq. ft. of commercial space on 864 acres between Linton Hall Road and Nisson Pavilion. The site is currently dominated by an established forest, where 35 specimen trees (typically, trees with a diameter greater than 30″) were found. Only 16 are proposed for protection and much of the promised open space does not meet the County’s definition.
Citizens need to fight the Planning Department (and often the elected supervisors…) to get a fair share of parkland, as new developments are approved. The proposed update to the Comprehensive Plan in 2006 pretended everything was just hunky-dory and business-as-usual was just fine, while the county’s population swelled far faster than the number of ballfields or opportunities for passive recreation.
In response, the Prince William Conservation Alliance led a long debate that concluded with creation of a new trails commission and a policy that the county would “Complete and maintain an up-to-date inventory of protected open space in Prince William County.”
Such an inventory is still missing in action, and the Planning Department is wheeling back to the bad ol’ days of “anything goes, Prince William has no standards, and even guidelines are loosey-goosey” development. The Planning Department is trying to create an open space loophole through which developers can maximize “yield” and profits from their projects, while the taxpayers are stuck with the bill.
The supervisors are requesting an extension of the time to sell bonds approved in 2006 to pay for parks and open space, as well as libraries and roads. You’d think the elected officials would also seek to obtain at least the minimum proffers for public facilities as new developments are approved so the taxpayers don’t subsidize the for-profit developers, but the Planning Department is undercutting that approach.
Which of the following do you think meet the official county definition of “open space”?
- Active recreation facilities
- Community recreation centers
- Power lines
- Stormwater management infrastructure
- Buffers along roads
- Middle schools
- None of the above
If you picked “none of the above,” think again. According to the staff report for the proposed Stone Haven development project, the County Planning Office agrees with the developer that items 1-6, above, qualify as open space in Prince William County. The county is trying to change from commitments of “Protected Open Space” and establish a new category, “Pretend Open Space.”
It’s a fraud, unless you think the proposed bus parking lot next to Catharpin Park is no different from the park itself.
Yeah, the entire acreage dedicated to a middle school, including buildings and parking lots, is “open space.” Really. So is that 15′ wide strip of grass between the road and the parking lot. When you walk through the doors of Chinn Recreation Center, you’re not indoors – you’re walking into open space, as proposed by the Planning Department. Really.
As Sherlock Holmes would say to Watson, “The game is afoot.” The same efforts to disguise the number of acres dedicated to public parks is underway for open space at Stone Haven, and that offers a clear clue about upcoming proposals for “preserving” the Rural Area…
Landowners can sell or donate their rights to develop a parcel, while retaining ownership of the land itself for remaining purposes (often as farmland, forest or open space).
Conservation easements are land deeds that transfer some property rights to a qualified non-government agency (land trust) or public agency, such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF).
Typically, landowners sell/donate the rights to develop most or all of the houses permitted by local zoning on their property. If zoning permits 10 houses to be constructed on a 100-acre parcel, the landowner could retain the right to build one house but sell/donate the development rights to the other 9 houses to a land trust.
With lower development potential, the value of the 100-acre parcel would drop substantially. Landowners are compensated through payments from Purchase of Development Rights Programs, tax credits, or both so the sale of a conservation easement makes financial sense to the private property owner.
Land trusts have permanent legal authority to enforce the terms of conservation easements. If a future owner of a parcel with a conservation easement attempts to build an excessive number of houses or violate other terms of the deal (such as preservation of stream buffers), the land trust can go to court to enforce the terms of the deal.
Most conservation easements keep land private, but could be written to authorize public use on trails or even the entire parcel. When the objective is to limit development in order to preserve natural or historical values, a conservation easement may be appropriate.
There were 384 responses to the county’s survey on the Rural Area, and whether current policy to preserve that area for agriculture and low-density development should be altered.
Developers propose every year to bust open the zoning and allow more houses. The Rural Preservation Study now being conducted by the Planning Department could be just a stalking horse to revise existing zoning.
After all, county staff used to refer to the Rural Area as “unzoned,” assuming future rezoning for sprawl was inevitable.
However, county residents have supported the Rural Area planning that has been in effect for the last 15 years. The boundary line has been modified only once to permit a major development (Avendale).
Here is a clue about public support for keeping the Rural Area rural: in 2013, only 11 out of the 384 responses suggested the Rural Area should metamorphose into future subdivisions:
UPDATED (November 26): based on the minutes of the November 7 meeting of the 5 agencies signing the Programmatic Agreement, it appears VDOT has been pressured into providing more $$$ for land acquisition to mitigate impacts of Bi-County Parkway. If you’re looking for mitigation of the excessive noise and traffic impacts on Manassas Battlefield Historic District… don’t hold your breath.
There’s movement on the Bi-County Parkway. On November 7, some – but not all – of the potential signers of the Section 106 Programmatic Agreement met.
The standard VDOT response to public opposition is modeled on Muhammed Ali’s strategy in the ring, playing rope-a-dope and extending the decision process until the opposition is too tired to continue. However, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the National Park Service (NPS) are anxious to get the Bi-County Parkway Programmatic Agreement signed before the current governor and his Secretary of Transportation leave office in January. Read more…
by Charlie Grymes
For 15 years, Prince William County has consciously steered most development to the Development Area. Within the Development Area, current planning/zoning will permit development of new houses for the 150,000 new residents expected to arrive by 2030. There is enough undeveloped land within the Development Area, already planned/zoned for new construction, to absorb 20 years of population growth.
Still, some developers are not satisfied. They see an opportunity to bend the rules to their advantage, creating short-term profits while imposing long-term costs on county taxpayers. A few developers want to buy land in the Rural Area, then get county supervisors to rezone the property to permit denser development.
Buying land by the acre and selling it by the square foot could generate a quick profit for a few people. However, scattershot development throughout the Rural Area would require taxpayers to build unplanned schools, fire/police stations, and other public facilities, increasing property taxes forever.
Low-tax advocates want to maintain the logical, planned development in the county, with development steered to the Development Area. Conservationists want to protect open space and streams in the Rural Area, providing wildlife habitat and helping Prince William meet its obligations to send clean water downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. Farmers interested in for-profit agriculture want to preserve opportunities in the Rural Area to lease/acquire enough land to make a farm operation economically viable. Read more…
by Charlie Grymes
In 1998, Supervisors revised the 1990 Comprehensive Plan to encourage high-density development on major chunks of land along Linton Hall and Route 15. More than 60% of the private land in the county was designated as the Development Area. In the last 15 years, Braemar, Kingsbrooke, Dominion Valley, Heritage Hunt, and other subdivisions have been completed in this expanded Development Area.
Expansion of the Development Area was intended to stimulate development of high-value “executive” homes. Tax revenues from low-cost townhomes, the dominant way population growth was accommodated in the 1980’s-1990’s, were too low. New residents had moved into those townhomes, crowding schools, congesting roads, and overwhelming the capability of first responders to provide basic public safety services.
By 1998, local elected officials were tired of increasing taxes to fund expansion of public services in Prince William. Voting for an increase in the property tax does not increase the popularity or re-election potential of county supervisors. Read more…
Prince William Conservation Alliance Book Club had its initial outing on Sunday, October 6 at the Alliance office in Tacket’s Mill. A small number of readers reviewed Richard Preston’s New York times bestseller The Wild Trees, a thoughtful story of several people brought together in their discovery and awe of Coast Redwood trees. These giants can have trunks that are 30 feet wide, and rise more than 35 stories into the sky.
Preston deftly describes, “… their mysterious canopies, rich with hanging gardens, blackened chambers hollowed by fire, and vast, aerial trunk systems fused into bridges and towers”. Overlaying these eloquent descriptions are the stories of Steve Sillet, Marie Antoine and the botanists who discover a lost world above California. A highly recommended book
Our next meeting will December 6, 3:00pm at PWCA’s office in Tackett’s Mill. We will review The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell.
Haskell, who recently spoke at the Arlington Public Library about this book and his discoveries, writes of a yearlong study of a square meter of land in an old growth mountain forest in East Tennessee. It is a series of short chapters describing all that he saw there. The book can be obtained through the Conservation Alliance Amazon portal on our website.
Please join us and share your thoughts on this beautiful book. Save the date and, in the meantime, get The Forest Unseen and become entranced.