James City County Supervisors started tough discussions on the issue of preserving rural lands at their work session Tuesday evening, and came to some general agreement on their expectations going forward.
Supervisors talked at considerable length about Transfer of Development Rights (selling development rights to move them from rural lands over to targeted development areas), and agreed that their expectation with such a program would be to decrease the overall number of residences in the county. If the county were to start a TDR program, the board would expect to reduce density in rural lands but also try to help rural property owners maintain their investment. Supervisors also want to ensure predictability in such a program.
They all generally agreed that they didn’t want to see residential sprawl happening in rural lands, which could happen currently with what’s known as “by-right development.”
Supervisors spent a majority of their work session discussing their questions, concerns and expectations for any TDR program the county might pursue in the future, along with some other plans for controlling growth in rural lands.
Supervisor Jim Icenhour said it was clear to him that most citizens want to find ways to better preserve farmland, and are concerned about the possibility of by-right residential development creating sprawl and eliminating green space.
Icenhour said TDR would likely help this problem, but based on what he heard recently from a representative of Montgomery County, Md., which has a successful TDR program, the board needed a strong political will to begin the project.
Also, he said to have a successful program the water and sewer lines cannot be extended further into rural lands.
Supervisor Mary Jones made the point that she wanted to hear from property owners in rural lands during the decision making process. Many land owners have expressed concerns at previous meetings that their land values and investments could be at risk if densities or land uses are reduced on rural lands.
She did agree that TDR might be a good alternative to sprawl, “but owners need options.”
Chairman Jim Kennedy was concerned about what landowners would be able to do with their rural property, even if they can earn a profit by selling their development rights. “What businesses will we encourage?” he asked. The county needs to specify what types of agricultural uses it would like to see in rural lands, and possibly incentivize it, he said.
“We need to invest in promoting agribusinesses,” Kennedy said. He also said the county would need to hire staff to do this.
Supervisor Bruce Goodson was concerned about the areas receiving additional density sold through TDR. The neighbors need to like it, he pointed out, using the uproar over the Autumn West development in Seasons Trace as an example. Neighbors were very unhappy about the idea of more densely packed townhomes in their neighborhood, though it was a part of the original master plan for the community.
Some people might be “raving mad” about parcels near them being “ultra developed,” Goodson said.
Kennedy said he thought TDR might be more palatable to citizens if they are aware that, due to the developments near them, other rural lands will be preserved.
Goodson liked the idea of residential clustering in rural areas, which would allow some areas of densely packed homes with other nearby land set aside as green space or agricultural land.
This would help alleviate some of the county’s water stress due to irrigation, he said, which other supervisors also wanted to address by reducing density (and therefore the area of lawn that would need to be irrigated).
Icenhour pointed out that one key factor in making TDR work is decreasing density in rural lands significantly in order to make TDR attractive to land owners. Currently, rural lands can be developed by-right with one home for every three acres of land. Montgomery County allows one home for every 25 acres to be built by-right, but TDR rights can be sold at a much higher density.
“If we’re not decreasing density in rural lands, then we’re wasting our time,” Icenhour said.
The “nuts and bolts” of a TDR program needs adequate staffing, Icenhour cautioned, and though the county wouldn’t need to act as a bank for the transfers, it would need to keep precise track of each transaction. He also suggested having a liaison to work with rural land owners.
TDR isn’t the only tool the county has to control growth in rural lands, Supervisor John McGlennon pointed out. The county can borrow money to purchase development rights, too, though the county hasn’t gotten far with purchasing development rights for some of the larger properties it is interested in.
The work session was only the beginning of ongoing plans for preserving rural lands in the county. Supervisors also discussed what the next steps would be, and when they’d look for public input.
First, staff will hire an outside consultant to do a feasibility study on a TDR program in the county. Also, they’ll find representatives from other areas that currently have TDR programs (including Montgomery County) to talk with supervisors. Because many TDR programs in Virginia haven’t had success with such a program, supervisors also want to hear from representatives of these areas, they said.
Once the board has had a chance to better solidify their thoughts on TDR, they would like to have some round table discussions with rural property owners as well as with other concerned citizens.
Jones made sure to point out that the public is welcome to call or email supervisors or county staff members to share thoughts on rural lands before coordinated meetings are arranged.