Prince William County defers development in Rural Crescent

Supervisor W.S. Covington III wanted to approve the proposal, citing millions in proffers.
Supervisor W.S. Covington III wanted to approve the proposal, citing millions in proffers. (Courtesy Of W.s.-wally Covington Iii)
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By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

The old dilemma between development and land preservation surfaced in the Prince William Board of County Supervisors chambers Tuesday as people came out to speak on a proposal to add hundreds of houses to the Rural Crescent.

"The last thing the county needs is another big subdivision," Prince William resident George McKay said. "The proposed homes won't pay for themselves, and the county is cash-strapped now. I think this is just another way to break up the Rural Crescent."

After listening to McKay and about 70 others, the board voted 6 to 2 at 11 p.m. to indefinitely defer a rezoning request and its accompanying comprehensive plan amendment. The amendment was to re-designate almost 180 acres along Vint Hill and Nokesville roads from the rural area to the development area, and the rezoning was to build a residential subdivision with as many as 295 houses on part of the re-designated land.

Many residents spoke against the development, known as Avendale, because it would chip away at the Rural Crescent, about 117,000 acres of land set aside in the late 1990s to preserve open space and agricultural resources, county officials said.

But just as many supported the proposal, saying it could bring jobs and services.

Although the land is part of the Rural Crescent now, the county's comprehensive plan calls for the realignment of Vint Hill Road, the thoroughfare some envision as the northern boundary of the crescent. Moving Vint Hill to connect farther south with Nokesville Road will effectively change the crescent's boundary, some project supporters said, keeping development to the north and open space to the south.

Brookfield Homes, the applicant, offered to help pay for that realignment.

"The argument that changing a road changes the Rural Crescent is absurd," Brentsville resident Patti McKay said. "If the U.S. reroutes the Rio Grande 100 miles north, does that mean Mexico then claims that land?"

Residents opposed to the rezoning said there is already a backlog of houses to be built in the county. Prince William planner Francis Burnszynski said land that could contain about 37,000 residential units has been zoned but as of 2008 not built on.

Opponents also said the overwhelmed roads and overcrowded schools in the county's western end can't handle more development.

Brookfield is proposing more than $12 million in proffers, some of which are in-kind, including a land donation of 77 acres for recreation space and a new school or two. County documents show that the three schools near the proposed development, Nokesville Elementary, Marsteller Middle and Brentsville District High schools, are over capacity. Nokesville, for instance, is at 141 percent of capacity. Three schools are scheduled to be built in the next two years, and county documents state they will provide the needed relief.

School Board officials said they don't support a rezoning that increases crowding at schools. It costs about $25 million to build a school, but construction money was not proffered.

"I have three children in Brentsville schools, and every single classroom is overcrowded," resident Zara Tirrell said. "I'd be more impressed with the proffers if they offered some real cash. . . . If they are really serious about this, let them show us the money."

People opposed to the project also brought up a pledge supervisors Michael C. May (R-Occoquan), Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge), John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville) and Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) signed during the 2007 election to protect the Rural Crescent. The pledge included supporting the zoning of one house per 10 acres that exists there.

"They all signed the pledge when it was easy, but this is when you are going to either walk the walk or talk the talk," Prince William resident Elena Schlossberg said. "And Mike Lubeley [who represents Brookfield] saying this is not the Rural Crescent is erroneous. The reality is it takes a vote to change the Rural Crescent, and that hasn't happened."

The number of people protesting the plan was matched by the number in support. Several in the construction industry said it would bring work to struggling local businesses. Brookfield also has a good reputation, they said, and would produce a pristine community.

"Being a small-business man, we need this. With the downturn of the market, our revenues are down 65 percent," said Prince William resident Jim Hagerman, who owns a landscaping business. "This is very important for the survivability of my business . . . for the survivability of my employees."

Others said the project provides the first glimmer of hope that Vint Hill will be realigned at a time when the county has no funds to do so.

"At the end of the day, we're not encroaching on the Rural Crescent," said Gainesville resident Eric Lippold, who supports the project. "Chairman Stewart, you are not breaking your pledge. We have talked about moving Vint Hill for a long time now."

Fredericksburg resident Gilbert Champ said he supports the rezoning because it might help with his own land problem. His family owns 50 acres on Nokesville Road and can't do anything with it because of the Rural Crescent rules, he said. If the rezoning passes, he said, it could set a new precedent.

If approved, the development would take about eight years to build out, with the first house arriving in a few years, Lubeley said.

Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) said he would have liked to have moved forward on the proposal. Even if it never came to fruition, the county would have still gotten the proffers proposed.

"Having a multimillion-dollar corporation willing to give millions in proffers is compelling here," Covington said. "I'm ready to move forward because I think there is an opportunity here. And if the [economy] is as bad as people say, the development will fall apart but the proffers will still come forward," benefiting the county.

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