Prince William County Rural Crescent: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What is the Rural Area?
The Rural Area is that portion of Prince William County where the Board of County Supervisors has planned for large-lot residential development. Most undeveloped land in the Rural Area is zoned A-1, allowing one house per 10 acres.
According to the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, “the primary function of the Rural Area as reflected by the Long-Range Land Use Plan Map is to maintain open space, protect native habitats, allow for large-lot residential development, allow for agricultural activities, and provide potential sites for community facilities.”1
Limited public infrastructure is planned for the Rural Area, reflecting the costs to build additional roads, schools, etc. to serve a low-density population. In particular, the 2008 Comprehensive Plan says “Development in the Rural Area shall occur without public sewer facilities, except where provided for in this chapter – to address specific public health concerns or to serve a specific public facility.”2
What is the Development Area?
In contrast to the Rural Area, urban, suburban, and semi-rural development is encouraged in the Development Area. Concentrating population growth allows the county to provide public services at lower cost, reducing rates paid for sewer/water and reducing property taxes required to build schools, fire/police stations, etc.
Zoning varies within the Development Area, with some portions allowing more than 30 dwelling units (apartments/condominiums) per acre. By providing a higher level of public services to higher-density neighborhoods, Prince William plans to attract businesses that provide local jobs, thus reducing commuting congestion and generating greater tax revenue.
The Long Range Land Use chapter of the 2008 Comprehensive Plan says:
Focus future public utilities and facilities, infrastructure improvements, and social service delivery systems within the Development Area with priority given to those areas where Prince William County is undertaking economic development or redevelopment initiatives, in accordance with the Economic Development Plan chapter. 3
Is the entire Development Area planned for high-density development?
No. A portion of the Development Area was intended to serve as a transition zone between the Rural Area and more-dense subdivisions and commercial development.
The Semi-Rural Residential (SRR) zone is planned for single-family dwellings at a density of one dwelling per 1-5 acres “as a transition between the largest-lot residential development in the Rural Area and the more dense residential development found in the Development Area”.
What is the difference between planning and zoning?
Zoning identifies what development is permitted today on a particular parcel. Planning identifies how areas might be rezoned in the future, to meet long-term land use goals. When a parcel’s zoning is changed, development is immediately authorized based on the new zoning classification.
The county’s Comprehensive Plan is different from the county’s zoning ordinance. When the Long Range Land Use Map is changed in a revision of the Comprehensive Plan, the zoning is NOT altered.
Land uses proposed in the Comprehensive Plan can be implemented only if they match the current zoning classification. If there is a disconnect between current zoning and long-term land use, a landowner can propose a rezoning. Once that rezoning is approved by the Board of County Supervisors, development can occur – based on whatever zoning is in place for that parcel.
Why does the county plan different areas for development at different densities? Why does county government restrict where the private sector can build?
Zoning emerged a century ago as a common tool in urbanizing areas to separate new industrial, commercial, and residential development. Homeowners wanted protection against incompatible development on adjacent parcels (such as a smoke-emitting factory, noisy gas station, or waste dump).
Zoning is used to steer growth so property owners can plan for future development, without being completely surprised by what is constructed next door.
Prince William County began to urbanize in the 1960’s, and new housing was constructed in the I-95 corridor (including Dale City) faster than sewage treatment plants were expanded. Health officials threatened to block new development until wastewater treatment plans were expanded to process the additional sewage from the expanding population.
The first land use plans for Prince William County focused on defining sanitary districts where new housing could be constructed without violating health standards. At the same time, incompatible uses were segregated. For example, industrial zones were designated along the railroads while residential areas were located at a distance.
Each land use plan for Prince William, starting with the first one in 1964 and revised every 5-10 years, has identified specific areas to be developed at higher density, with sewer/water lines, schools, and other public facilities directed to those areas. Some form of a rural area with low-density development and limited public infrastructure has been part of every land use plan.
The main alternative to using zoning to encourage/restrict growth in specific areas is to allow high-density residential development across the entire county. Such a laissez-faire approach would have made it impossible for local officials to predict where demand would require new public facilities.
Unplanned growth would require building new sewer/water lines and roads through undeveloped areas in order to reach subdivisions scattered across the county, creating a higher cost for that infrastructure. Customers, or taxpayers, would pay higher rates.
Prince William County zones sufficient land for residential development to accommodate the next 20 years of predicted population growth. That approach provides enough land to encourage competition between developers, while allowing cost-effective extension of public infrastructure.
Comprehensive Plan Amendments are considered every year by the Board of County Supervisors, to adjust planning to match current circumstances.
Why (and when) was the Rural Area created?
In the 1990’s, Prince William County was struggling with a mis-match between demand and supply. A rapidly-growing population created a need to expand the school system, which required additional tax revenue to build new classrooms and pay more teachers. At the same time, the supply of tax revenue from property taxes was not matching the demand, in large part because the county had a high percentage of low-cost townhomes which paid low property taxes.
A Washington Post article in 1998 quoted a Loudoun County supervisor’s concern about that county’s inability to match infrastructure development with rapid residential development:
We're growing faster than we're able to afford… Growth is okay, but you've got to do it in a manner that you can afford. When you're having development at the rate it's going, it's hard to keep taxes down.4
The solution in Prince William County was to encourage new executive housing and more expensive single family homes, especially along Route 15 and Linton Hall Road. At the same time, the county limited the cost of new infrastructure on the far western edge of the county by defining a Rural Area where high-density housing would not be permitted.
That Rural Area was defined at the edge of the county, because that was the most expensive area for extending sewer/water lines and roads. New residents there would also experience the longest commute to jobs in Fairfax County/DC, so it was viewed as the least-attractive area for building new subdivisions.
How did designation of the Rural Area affect property values?
The 1998 Comprehensive Plan established a 10-acre minimum lot size for undeveloped parcels in the Rural Area. That matched the existing planning and zoning for most properties within the Rural Area. No property was downzoned.
A small portion of the land included within the Rural Area had been planned as Rural Residential in the 1990 Comprehensive Plan. That land might have been developed at densities up to one house per 5 acres, so that property was downplanned - but when the Rural Area was established, all land for which higher-density projects were proposed was kept in the Development Area.
What is now Dominion Valley, and the jagged boundary around New Bristow Village on Route 28, shows how landowners were able to exclude some properties in 1998.here is no validity to the claim that Rural Area properties lost value when the Rural Area was established.
In 2014, the zoning classifications for the Rural Area have been consistent for over 15 years. In the last 15 years, the value of some properties in the county have risen faster than the value of other properties.
Some Rural Area landowners would like to change their current zoning to allow greater density, in expectations that the property could then be sold at a higher price. Some Development Area landowners have similar dreams of buying low, holding property for years, and then selling high, hoping a rezoning will ensure their land speculation is rewarded.
What are the benefits of the Rural Area?
Steering growth to the Development Area helps keep property taxes lower for all landowners in Prince William County, by reducing the costs of new public facilities. Taxpayers can finance cost-effective infrastructure in Development Area, or spend even more money to build equivalent infrastructure in the Rural Area.
The Rural Area also reduces traffic congestion. Commuters who live closer to job centers spend less time on the road. Workers who might live in new residences near Nokesville, south of New Bristow Village, will clog more miles of Route 28 when driving to work in Fairfax or DC.
One major benefit of the Rural Area is the opportunity to preserve farmland, diversifying the county’s economy and creating a more-local food supply.
Conversion of farmland to subdivisions has consumed almost all commercial farmland in the Development Area. Preservation of large lots and undeveloped sections of the Rural Area offer space for growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other specialty crops as well as raising livestock and horses.
Loudoun and Fauquier counties demonstrate the potential for long-term farming, including wineries. That potential exists in Prince William’s Rural Area today only because most residential development has been directed to the Development Area over the last 15 years.
There are other benefits as well, such as offering an attractive gateway to Prince William. The county’s plans to attract businesses assume that quality-of-life characteristics will help Prince William compete with other jurisdictions. The open space of the Rural Area offers a clear contrast to Arlington/Alexandria/Fairfax, helping Prince William compete for jobs in the economy of the future.
Why do developers keep proposing to reduce/eliminate the Rural Area?
Buying land by the acre, then selling it by the square foot, is an obvious way to make a profit.
Developers who have only an interest in short-term profits would benefit if they could bust the Rural Area, and get their parcels rezoned for higher-density development.
If a developer could buy a 100-acre parcel with A-1 zoning on the edge of the Rural Area, then get zoning changed to allow 3 houses per acre, the developer could construct 33 houses rather than 10 houses. If that pesky Rural Area boundary could be moved a few hundred yards, the developer could triple the profit.
Big money is involved.
The developer at Avendale was able to get 5 members of the Board of County Supervisors to move the boundary of the Rural Area and rezone 125 acres on Vint Hill Road near Route 28 to increase density from 12 to 295 houses. If each parcel with a house is sold for the asking price ($400,000 and up) and generated a profit of $50,000, the Avendale rezoning was worth $15 million.
What is the Rural Preservation Study?
At the request of the Planning Office, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors initiated a study in 2013 to examine whether the Rural Area has achieved its goals. The stimulus for the study is not obvious, though some S upervisors have made their desire to allow increased densities clear for years.
No comparable study was initiated to assess if the county has achieved its Comprehensive Plan goals for stream preservation, economic development, etc. For example, a review of the Parks, Open Space, and Trails Chapterreveals major failures in implementation – not a single acre of parkland has been purchased by the county since that chapter was approved.
An assessment of whether the Development Area has achieved its goals would provide a more complete picture of Rural Crescent benefits, which affect community infrastructure and ammenities Countywide.
The Planning Department’s narrow focus on just properties within the Rural Area boundary raises concerns that the study is just another effort to change the boundaries of the Rural Area and justify greater density. If so, that would provide short-term benefits for some landowners, while imposing long-term costs on taxpayers to fund more infrastructure where it is not cost-effective.
What are conservation easements, and how have they been used in Prince William County?
A conservation easement is a contract involving development of land.
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.
How are proffers different from conservation easements?
Developers offer proposals (proffers) when negotiating with local governments for a rezoning approval. Proffers can include cash payments,commitments to certain development practices, donations of parkland, intersection improvements or road widening projects, specific design/color schemes for structures, or commitments to construct a certain amount of commercial development before building a new section of residential units.
Proffers are voluntary deals between developers and local governments that are finalized when a rezoning is approved. However, in many cases, proffer amendments or administrative approval of “minor” changes are used to revise proffers later as the development proceeds.
Prince William County officials often modify proffers after development begins, but neighborhood residents who may have participated in the initial zoning decision process rarely get involved in modifications and there is no good way for communities to learn about many proposed changes before they are approved. Local officials can change proffer commitments, after a rezoning has been approved and any local uproar subsides.
The Marquis at Heritage Hunt committed to running a shuttle bus in order to reduce traffic congestion and obtain zoning approval. Later, the county allowed cancellation of the bus – with no other mitigation required.
There is no assurance that a proffer will be enforced, either temporarily or permanently. It is rare for a community to be aware of proffers except right when a controversial rezoning is approved.
In conservation easements, a public deed stipulating the purchased rights is filed in the courthouse and the land trust can protect the property rights that it acquired. For proffers, the commitments are buried in files at the Planning Office, and only county officials have the right to enforce proffers, which can be changed through proffer amendments or revised administratively.
Because proffers are not identified except in rezoning case files (and are not available as a layer on the County Mapper), new residents are not able to identify proffers on particular parcels. As a result, it is rare to find neighbors willing to serve as eyes and ears and notify county officials years later if proffers are violated (such as cutting a forest that was supposed to be left intact).
What are the county’s plans for open space protection, and what is the current status of the county’s open space protection program?
In 2007, the Planning Office was surprised by the public response to a redraft of the Comprehensive Plan chapter on Parks and Open Space. The supposedly-routine process triggered extensive public involvement.
Prince William Conservation Alliance led the effort to demand more ambitious goals for parkland and open space acquisition, greater access to waterways, and for creation of a trails program.
One result of the effort was the creation of a Prince William Trails and Blueways Council, now an advisory council to the Department of Parks and Recreation. Various trail initiatives are now underway, including the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.
Much debate during the revision of the chapter revolved around the definition of protected open space. The county’s definitions of parks has always been misleading – the County Mapper layer showing “parks” includes all schools, including buildings and parking lots.
Private areas not open to use by the general public (including common areas of Home Owner Associations) are also counted as “public parks.”
The chapter drew a distinction between Open Space (Land that is not dominated by man-made structures) from Protected Open Space (Land that is protected from development with perpetual conservation or open space easement or fee ownership…).
Several Action Strategies finally adopted in the chapter were:
Define and publish guidelines for calculating changes to the inventory of protected open space.
Maintain an open space inventory map showing parcel-specific boundaries of protected open space and make this information available as a geographic information system (GIS) layer on the County Mapper.
Periodically prepare and publish a comprehensive inventory of existing protected open space.
- Review county-owned properties and determine what county-owned lands should beprotected as open space, and ensure such designation is made in official management plans of the Park Authority, Service Authority, Department of Public Works, Transportation Department, and other county agencies. 5
None of these have been attempted, much less accomplished. Promises made were not promises kept.
Can water/sewer lines be extended into the Rural Area?
Sewer capacity in particular permits denser development than septic systems. Authorizing the Service Authority of Prince William County to extend public water/sewer into the Rural Area would allow high-density development, in an area planned for low-density development.
One Action Strategy 2008 Comprehensive Plan is “Focus future publicly funded capital improvement programs for sewer facility expansion projects into the Development Area.”
By investing in the Development Area, the county is able to facilitate residential and commercial development where it would be most cost-effective.
The Plan is also clear regarding extension of sewer into the Rural Area:
Development in the Rural Area shall occur without public sewer facilities, except where provided for in this chapter – to address specific public health concerns or to serve a specific public facility. Any extension of public sewers into the Rural Area, however, shall not be used as a justification for increasing the residential densities that are shown on the Long-Range Land Use Plan Map for the Rural Area.
To deal with hardship cases, the Comprehensive Plan authorizes extension of sewer to existing structures if their septic systems fail and the property is within 1,000 feet of an existing sewer line.
That does not apply to undeveloped parcels; the intent is to accommodate existing houses, not to provide sewer connections to new houses within the Rural Area.
However, the Planning Commission has ignored this direction and granted approval for extending sewer lines even to some undeveloped parcels in the Rural Area, using the Public Facility Review process to reduce the visibility of the decision process.
The 2008 Comprehensive Plan also authorizes extension of sewer into the Rural Area to serve “a public facility, such as a public school, fire station, or public library.”6
The supervisors have stretched that definition to include churches. The rezoning for Fireside Wesleyan Church in 2007 generated extensive debate over whether that facility was being used to justify extension of sewer, which would facilitate later private development of more parcels nearby in the Rural Area. The Board of County Supervisors has never rejected a request to extend water/sewer to a church near the Rural Area boundary.
What would be the impact of extending water/sewer lines into the Rural Area?
There are three potential impacts:
More development, comparable to the subdivisions permitted in the Development Area (see New Bristow Village or Avendale as examples)
Dense cluster development, reshaping the location of houses to be near a sewer line but not increasing the total number
- Dense cluster development and more overall development
If the Service Authority funded the extension of utilities, everyone in Prince William County paying water/sewer bills to that agency would subsidize development in the Rural Area.
More likely, developers will offer to fund the extension of water/sewer lines, hoping that local officials/taxpayers will then ignore all the other costs of expanding and maintaining suburban sprawl in the Rural Area.
What is cluster development?
A-1 zoning allows landowners to build 1 house on each 10-acre lot. Normal land development results in houses spaced far apart from each other, with each house relying upon a private well and a septic system (or alternative on-site septic system).
In cluster development, houses are located close enough to each other to share a common water/sewer system. Clustering can reduce development costs, minimizing the miles of road and power lines required to service different houses. Clustering would also reduce the time children spend on school buses, allowing fewer stops to collect all students from an area.
From a farming and conservation perspective, clustering houses on a few acres can leave a large chunk of remaining land undeveloped. Larger blocks of undeveloped land are more suitable for farm operations, and can offer increased conservation values.
However, unless an associated open space plan has been developed to guide decisions on land conservation, cluster development is likely to result in a pattern of fragmented open spaces that are of little value for wildlife habitat, stream preservation or community passive use parkland.
How would cluster development affect the Rural Area?
Since the 2008 Comprehensive Plan prohibited the use of private wastewater package plants (based on previous failures and cost considerations), and few places in the Rural Area offer soils suitable for septic systems, the only way to implement cluster development is to extend sewer to clusters in the Rural Area.
Clustering increases density, but does not automatically increase the total number of houses authorized. A cluster development on a 100-acre parcel in an area zoned A-1 would put 10 houses close together, the same number of houses that could be built on 10 separate 10-acre lots.
However, developers have claimed that they can’t make a sufficient profit by developing at the authorized densities in the Rural Area. Developers have agreed to create cluster developments only if additional housing units are approved along with a clustering plan.
The developer strategy is to link increased density (through cluster) with a rezoning to increase the total number of houses, and to insist that developers must receive increased profits before committing to cluster development.
The developers claim that that can build cluster development only if granted an increase in total houses is questionable. The most outspoken advocate for increasing the amount of housing in the Rural Area keeps proposing Comprehensive Plan Amendments that would triple the number of houses.
What is a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program?
In a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, government agencies (sometimes with other partners) reduce the number of houses that could be built in an area by purchasing the development rights from private landowners. After development rights are purchased, the parcels are permanently protected by a conservation easement.
If a local government altered zoning to reduce development potential, property owners would receive no compensation – which is why downzoning is not a realistic option today. In contrast, with a PDR program property owners are paid to give up rights to build houses.
PDR programs are voluntary; purchases are made only from willing sellers and no one is compelled to sell. A PDR sale is attractive because it far simpler than taking the risks involved in building houses and trying to sell them in the open market.
The state of Virginia provides some funding to local governments to purchase development rights. The Military Encroachment Partnering Program offers 50% of the cost to purchase development rights for properties around the border of military bases, such as Marine Corps Base Quantico.
Have other Virginia communities implemented a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program?
Jurisdictions with active PDR programs include Albemarle County, Clarke County, James City County, Virginia Beach, and Fauquier County.
Fauquier County has successfully protected a critical mass of farmland, which is still the leading industry in that county.
What is a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program?
In a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, local governments designate areas where greater density is desirable (receiving areas) and areas where development density should be reduced (sending areas).
If developers purchase development rights for properties located in sending areas, the local government authorizes transfer of that density to a designated receiving area. Private (not government) funding is used normally to acquire the development rights. Government support is provided by authorizing use of those development rights in a different location.
For example, a developer with plans to build an apartment building in the Development Area could make a deal with a farmer in a designated sending area. After the developer purchased the rights to build 10 houses on a 100-acre parcel zoned A-1, that 100-acre parcel would be placed in a conservation easement.
The developer would use the additional 10 units of density at the apartment building in the receiving area, perhaps by adding another story to the building.
The complexity of the deals requires transparency and public trust in the Planning Department for a TDR program to succeed. Residents in the receiving area must be willing to accept the increased density, which may bring benefits such as more public transit services or desirable landscaping. Public trust is also essential because the potential for back-room deals to be negotiated in the process is high.
How have other Virginia communities implemented a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program?
Frederick County has a TDR ordinance in place, at the moment. TDR is too new is Virginia to have a track record.
How could farmland be preserved in the Rural Area?
Direct staff in the Department of Economic Development to work with the Soil and Water Conservation District and Planning Department, to identify all state/Federal programs offering farmland preservation assistance and/or funding that could be used in Prince William County
Identify undeveloped parcels in the Rural Area with the greatest potential for long-term commercial agricultural use, and use bond authority already approved for land acquisition to purchase conservation easements on those parcels
Eliminate the Bi-County Parkway from the Transportation Chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, so that portion of the Rural Area was not converted into pavement
Eliminate plans to 4-lane Vint Hill Road through the Rural Area, creating a commuter bypass incompatible with land uses along that highway
1 Long Range Land Use Plan, p.LU-4, 2008 Prince William County Comprehensive Plan, July 17, 2012
2 Sanitary Sewer Plan, p.SEWER-1, 2008 Prince William County Comprehensive Plan, March 18, 2008
3 Long Range Land Use Plan, p.LU-7, 2008 Prince William County Comprehensive Plan, July 17, 2012
4 Suburbs Fuel Most of Washington Area's Growth, Washington Post, March 18, 1998
5 Parks, Open Space, and Trails, p.POS&T-24-26, 2008 Prince William County Comprehensive Plan, February 26, 2008
6 Sanitary Sewer Plan, p.SEWER-1-4, 2008 Prince William County Comprehensive Plan, March 18, 2008