Madera Farm – The Backstory

January 20, 2016 UPDATE:  The Board of County Supervisors approved the addition of Madera to the Agricultural and Forestal District on January 19 in a 7-0 vote, but only after the landowner committed to cancel the request for a Special Use Permit.  

The Gainesville District supervisor negotiated that in advance.  The Prince William Conservation Alliance spoke at the public hearing in support of commercial agriculture, rather than industrial operations, in the Rural Area. 


Normally, adding a farm in western Prince William’s Rural Area to an Agricultural and Forestal District would be a routine event. The county established that land use classification in 1973 to facilitate preservation of farms and forests.

However, Madera “Farm” is not a normal agricultural operation. It resembles more closely an industrial operation, grinding mulch and processing construction and demolition debris.

madfar9.png

Adding Madera to an adjacent Agricultural and Forestal District would undercut efforts to maintain commercial agricultural operations in Prince William County. It would reduce the credibility of actual farmers working to preserve farmland, and open the door to increased housing and retail strip shopping districts in the county’s Rural Area.

madfar2Source: Item 16-I, Prince William County
Planning Department Staff Report, January 19, 2016 

The Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) will vote on the application January 19.  The Planning Commission previously recommended denial, because there is a not-so-hidden agenda associated with the proposal.

When the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) was preparing a “conservation plan” for the Madera landowner, the Prince William Conservation Alliance objected to a routine approval.

merfar.pngyellow = existing land in Agricultural and Forestal District
red = propose addition of Madera “Farm”
(Source: Prince William Mapper)

The Madera landowner had been caught violating state law.  When clearing the natural forest, he had destroyed protected wetlands and streams, and sent excessive pollution into local streams without any of the required permits from DEQ.

madfar3Virginia DEQ penalized the owner of Madera Farm
for unpermitted dredging and filling wetlands

The state’s penalty was minor, but did include a Corrective Action Plan for on-site mitigation.  The landowner committed to locating a replacement stream with forested buffer at a location negotiated with DEQ.  The hypothetical pig-raising plan submitted to the Soil and Water Conservation District suggested a 14.7 acre cleared field would be placed at the same location.

madfar6Source: Madera Farms Corrective Action Plan, Figure 1

The Prince William Conservation Alliance (a non-government organization) alerted the district (a government agency) that the “conservation plan” for raising pigs, as prepared by district staff, was based on a misrepresentation.

After a delay of several months, the district finalized the staff’s conservation plan – which landowners can ignore – but refused to endorse the request to add Madera to the Agricultural and Forestal District.

Confusing?  The backstory is even more complicated.

In addition to committed to create a forested stream buffer and a cleared field at the same location, back in 2013 the landowner asked Prince William County for a Special Use Permit to conduct mulch grinding operations  there.

madfar5.pngproposed location of Special Use Permit operations includes area where stream must be restored according to Consent Order
Source: Madera Farm

The Planning Commission asked the applicant to choose between the Special Use Permit or designation as an Agricultural and Forestal District.  The two uses were incompatible for very same land.

When the landowner refused to clarify which use was intended, the Planning Commission denied the Agricultural and Forestal District  request.   Clearly it was not possible to restore a stream, raise pigs, and operate a commercial mulch grinding business on the very same spot.  Without a realistic plan, the Planning Commission just said no.

So why is the landowner asking for Madera Farm trying to game the system and get the site included in an Agricultural and Forestal District?

madfar10.png

In the short run, it is a way to get an unauthorized industrial operation classified as a farm activity.  The existing mulch grinding business there is in violation of county zoning requirements.

However, the county has refused to enforce its zoning ordinance.  The Madera site is zoned for agricultural activities.  The zoning enforcement staff – presumably under direction from higher authority – has claimed that farming activities are permitted there, and pretended that commercial mulch grinding businesses are industrial activities rather than farming activities.

Large trucks bring wooden debris to the Madera site from Fauquier, Culpeper and other places, then haul away the processed material to construction sites in Fairfax or wherever. By using that site, the landowner is gaining an unfair advantage over competitors who played by the rules and acquired land zoned for industrial uses.

Getting Agricultural and Forestal designation adds camouflage to the true activities.  It would help excuse the county’s failure to protect nearby landowners from an inappropriate use.

madfar8the Rural Area forms a crescent of land furthest away from the job centers, and planned for lower residential density
Source: Prince William Mapper

In the long run, Madera “Farm” is a camel’s nose into the tent.  It is part of the latest plan to eliminate the Rural Area and increase suburban sprawl.

Creating “fake farming” operations is a small part of the game to create confusion about what is realistic for maintaining the Rural Area.

The Rural Preservation Study, completed in 2014, proposed multiple ways to increase development in the Rural Area.   The study claimed there were ten types of Rural Character Areas, then recommended a complicated set of new zoning categories and an unrealistic Transfer of Development Rights (TOD) proposal.

madfar7.png
“Emerging Rural Character Areas” identified in the Rural Area
Source: Prince William County Rural Preservation Study Public Open House Sessions, December 7, 2013

Those who want to continue farming in Prince William need stable land prices and property taxes based on agriculture and forest values, not speculative house values.   Those committed to actual farming will not benefit if the supervisors change the rules to allow more non-farming activities such as industrial mulch grinding, or more houses.

The developers and politicians trying to bust the Rural Area hope to generate  confusion about what is “farming.”

If industrial mulch operations equal agriculture, then it is just as logical to claim more housing and more 7-11’s in the Rural Area are needed to implement the “efficient rural community development” proposals in the Rural Preservation Study.

Local conservationists expect that development of the Rural Area will be included in the 2016 update of the Economic Development Chapter in the Comprehensive Plan.   New zoning categories, such as “Transitional Ribbon,” will be packaged as a way to transform the agricultural community with clustered housing developments that require expensive public infrastructure – especially sewers, roads, and schools.

The most obvious way to enhance economic development in the Rural Area is to support commercial agriculture.  Large-scale farms comparable to commercial agriculture in Iowa is not feasible, but  Prince William could focus on niche products and food-to-table operations.  Loudoun County has demonstrated the success of that approach already.

Instead, county officials are expected to support expansion of the suburbs into the farming zone.  The Madera application for Agricultural and Forestal designation made clear that it is synchronized with that strategy:

madfar4Source: Item 16-I, Prince William County
Planning Department Staff Report, January 19, 2016

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