From the Inside: A Stakeholder’s Experience With the Rural Preservation Study

by Charlie Grymes

Nokesville farmI was invited to participate as a “stakeholder,” at the start of the formal process for developing the Rural Preservation Study.  I was one of 33 stakeholders, from 18 organizations.  I participated on August 2, 2013, one day after the public kickoff meeting for the Rural Preservation Study at Nokesville Elementary School.

I was invited to be a stakeholder because I serve as the chair of the Prince William Conservation Alliance. PWCA is the only environmental organization in Prince William with full-time staff.  For over a decade, the alliance has been a clear voice in the local land use planning process. We speak out regularly about the benefits of smart growth, and how “busting” the Rural Area to permit greater development will inevitably result in higher taxes county-wide.

If you just fell off the back of a turnip truck, you might think the Rural Preservation Study is designed to initiate more protection of open space, to avoid future traffic congestion by steering new housing to be located closer to jobs north/east of Prince William, and to limit increases in the property taxes and sewer/water rates by ensuring future public infrastructure (especially schools/roads) is built in the Development Area.

Yeah, pass me a turnip, please…

I hold no illusions about the intent behind this study.  It was not initiated because the Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) wanted an honest assessment of “rural preservation.”  Some members of the BOCS have an agenda for using this study to change the current planning/zoning for the Rural Area.

Part of the Rural Preservation Study process includes paying for outside professionals and academics to have stakeholder meetings, then generate a report.  I expect county officials will claim that report provides an “independent” set of conclusions.

For anyone who has dealt with county staff, simply hiring contractors will not create trust. There are far too many examples of unprofessional behavior by Planning Department and Transportation staff.

For years, staff reports listed how rezoning proposals were inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan, but then the report somehow concluded that “on balance” the rezoning should be approved.  The staff’s thumb was on the scales, siding consistently with changes that imposed long-term costs on the public but provided short-term profits to the developers.

There are also far too many examples of the elected supervisors ignoring the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance, in order to generate a pre-determined result.  The most egregious example was the April, 2010 replanning/rezoning of Avendale, claiming that the boundaries of the Rural Area were not affected because they supervisors also moved the road.  The Avendale experience may be repeated – watch the replanning/rezoning near Manassas National Battlefield Park, if the Bi-County Parkway is built.

Years of sour experiences in dealing with county officials made me suspicious when I went to the stakeholder’s meeting on August 2.  It had not helped that the night before, at the public meeting in Nokesville, I had to ask three times before I got a simple answer to a basic question – will the Rural Preservation Study consider the fiscal impacts of preserving the Rural Area?  (The answer was, finally, “no.”)

Fiscal impacts are important to everyone who pays taxes.  Everyone in the county benefits if we build schools in cost-effective locations, and minimize the need for expensive new roads.  Residents in eastern Prince William also benefit when we build public facilities near where most people live, in the Development Area.  We need parks, libraries, and schools in the Occoquan, Woodbridge, Potomac, Neabsco, and Coles districts.  Putting ballfields and hiking trails in the Rural Area – mostly Gainesville and Brentsville districts – forces most county residents to drive through traffic to get to a “neighborhood” school/park that is nowhere close to their neighborhood.

At the August 2 stakeholder meeting, the county staff was uniformly pleasant.  The hired guns from the outside – a planner from Baltimore and an agricultural land use specialist from Pennsylvania – have credentials.  No one had devil horns, a tail, or cloven hoofs.

The stakeholder’s meeting that I attended included, by chance, representatives from the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust and Prince William Forest Park.  We all shared common ideas regarding the economic and quality-of-life benefits of the Rural Area, and from Semi-Rural low-density development areas within the Development Area (especially near the Occoquan River).

We also shared concerns about the failure of the Board of County Supervisors to implement the action items in the Parks, Open Space, and Trails chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, or to seek out opportunities for partnerships to protect open space and increase access to public recreation areas.  There are numerous options for conservation easements and untapped funding resources from Federal partners (including Quantico Marine Corps Base), but the county has shown no initiative.

County staff and the consultants listened, explored ideas that we raised, and took notes.  We were told the notes would be posted online, but three weeks later that has not been done.  We do know that concerns expressed about the draft maps has not been addressed.  For example, the categories on the Rural Area Land Development Status map are undefined.  What is meant by “Developed Land” andCommitted Land”?

So for all we know, the stakeholder meetings were a serious attempt for the consultants to gather input, before generating their report.  On the other hand, the meetings could have been a whitewash exercise in public involvement, with no impact on pre-determined conclusions.

The jury is still out on the quality of the consultant’s report, but we can guess that the recommendations from the final study will be designed to justify increased density in the Rural Area – and perhaps similar charges to the Semi-Rural area in Coles and Occoquan districts.

How can we draw such a conclusion?

The study fails to consider the fiscal impacts of the Rural Area designation.  It is cost-effective to concentrate public infrastructure in the portions of the Development Area planned for dense development.  Scattering schools, roads, fire/police stations, and other public infrastructure across the Rural Area, perpetuating “dumb growth,” will require higher taxes.

For many Prince William residents, the strongest argument for preserving the Rural Area is that it minimizes taxes – but the contract for the consultants excluded consideration of that argument.

Is the Rural Preservation Study an independent analysis, or honest assessment of the Rural Area’s benefits?  Pass me another turnip, please…

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