Changes to the SRR district – land use loophole or developer incentive?

On February 2 Supervisors will vote on new land use policies that would change the development rules in the SRR mid-County district, which covers key portions of the Occoquan Reservoir watershed.

The current proposal offers developers a density bonus to encourage the “preservation of natural resources.” The County would calculate allowed densities for new development using the parcel(s) net acreage (excludes environmental resources) EXCEPT for clustered development, where densities would be calculated using the gross acreage (includes environmental resources).

In theory, the density bonus would reward developers for clustering new homes on lots as small as a half acre and leaving contiguous areas of environmentally sensitive land undeveloped.

At first glance, this seems like a fair compromise that gives developers an incentive to protect the environment. However, the devil’s in the details and the proposed text includes a loophole – the “preserved” areas are not required to be undeveloped or permanently protected.

If adopted as currently written, developers could expect approval for increased densities by building ball fields or donating land for the County to build ball fields. The result could be both more houses and more environmental impacts, not a fair trade.

While Prince William clearly needs more ball fields, must they come at the expense of the environment? Ball fields are heavily compacted areas, with only minimal benefits over the impervious surfaces added by their associated parking lots. For both, stormwater impacts are significant and the conservation values are approximately zilch.

However, building ball fields is cheaper than environmental restoration so developers are likely to love this arrangement (taxpayers not so much). In fact, developers are currently requesting a similar change to the Environment Chapter, where new ball fields could be traded for development on streams, steep slopes and wetlands.

Policies that actually encourage environmental impacts in order to gain active recreation are shortsighted at best. Who is going to pay to clean up our wetlands, streams and public drinking water supplies? Given the new EPA-mandated Chesapeake Bay requirements and stiff penalties for noncompliance that are looming on the horizon, Prince William residents who are concerned about future tax increases should be alarmed.

As written, the current proposal includes actions that directly conflict with the stated goal to “promote preservation of natural resources.” Revising a few key words could help match the actions with the goals. Here’s one suggestion on how this could be accomplished:

Cluster housing is encouraged for developments within the SRR and particularly for developments greater than 50 acres to promote preservation of natural resources and open space. Consolidation of parcels smaller than 50 acres in the SRR is also encouraged to meet these clustering goals. Clustered developments should shall result in residential density no greater than the allowed maximum of 1 dwelling unit per 2.5 gross acres and the minimum lot size is no less than one acre. However, individual lots smaller than 1 acre but greater than .5 acres may be allowed to facilitate the dedication of public natural resource facilities such as parks, trails and protected contiguous, natural open space that is permanently protected, conditional that the overall density goals are maintained.

Investments from both Fairfax County and Prince William County are needed to protect our public drinking water supply. To date, Fairfax County has purchased 5,000 acres of land adjacent to the Occoquan Reservoir for passive recreation and downzoned an additional 41,000 acres, reducing by-right densities in key areas that drain to the Reservoir.

In contrast, Prince William has committed to 2.5 acre lots for new homes in the mid-County area. Today, there are 25 homes and 5,000 acres of passive parkland along Fairfax County’s Occoquan Reservoir shoreline. On the Prince William side, there are 450 homes and 60 acres of developed parkland.

Compared to Fairfax County’s investment, ensuring that density bonuses in the SRR district actually protect environmental resources and our public drinking water supply seems like the least Prince William County can do.

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