By AMANDA VICINANZO THE FREE LANCE–STAR May 8, 2017
It wasn’t very long ago that Stafford County looked like a very different place. Farms dominated the rural landscape and shopping and restaurant choices were limited.
But a boom in development in the late 1990s and early 2000s led the population to skyrocket. As new businesses, stores and residences began to crop up, the agricultural nature of the county faded and the area began taking on a more suburban character.
About a decade ago, the Stafford County Board of Supervisors realized it needed to do something to promote growth while preserving the county’s agricultural, historical, and natural resources.
The supervisors began to explore various mechanisms to facilitate open space preservation including transfer of development rights, the creation of parks and the purchase of developments rights—or PDR— program.
Their strategies for saving open space and directing development were recently recognized with an Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties. The award honors county government programs that enhance services for residents.
Paul Milde, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said these programs have enabled the county to preserve more than 10,000 acres in open space while directing development toward targeted growth areas and away from rural areas.
This includes 4,110 in easements, 3,978 in state lands, 1,729 in park land and 448 acres protected through the county’s PDR program.
“Our open space preservation efforts have allowed the county to direct growth towards urban areas where infrastructure—such as water and sewage, roads and schools—is already in place to support it, and away from the rural open spaces containing the county’s most cherished natural resources and historical treasures,” Milde explained.
Kathy Baker, the county’s assistant director of planning and zoning, said county officials found that investing in programs to protect open space provides a number of economic benefits and attracts businesses and people to the area.
“Businesses gravitate towards areas that offer a good quality of life and amenities, and that includes parks and open space,” Baker said.
As part of its ongoing effort to save open space, the county recently announced the expansion of its PDR program. Milde, a longtime proponent of PDR, said the program has become an important tool for reducing sprawl.
The board implemented PDR in 2007 as a voluntary program that gives property owners an alternative to selling their land by compensating them for putting it under a conservation easement. The owner retains ownership of the land and may continue to reside on the property, and use it for agricultural purposes—such as farming—but the development rights are extinguished.
Milde said getting the funding in place to support PDR was one of the biggest initial challenges. In 2011, the program reached a significant milestone when the board established a dedicated funding source for PDR through rollback tax excess.
Rollback taxes are incurred when land is changed from one type of use to another.
It wasn’t until fiscal year 2013 that the allocation of funds for PDR was made automatically by policy rather than on a specific, one-time basis. This year, that policy was enhanced with the fiscal year 2018 budget, which added additional funds to the program.
Matching state funds have been provided by a several state and federal programs including the Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services, Virginia Land Conservation Foundation and the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program.
“As a result of shifting priorities of the board, we securing the funding needed to support PDR,” Milde said. “That is why the program only really started to take off in the last several years.”
Baker said that before the PDR program was implemented, many farmers felt pressured to sell their land to developers as more growth and development came to the county. As a result, farm land began to dwindle.
“Many of these farms had been around for centuries,” Baker explained. “Some of these properties have historical resources and once it is gone it is gone.”
The county has invested a total of approximately $1.4 million in the program, resulting in 448 acres saved and 115 development rights retired.
New application cycles are based on available funds for property owners interested in participating in the PDR program. So far, two application rounds have been held, and a third round in the near future is a possibility, she explained.
Ties to the land are typically the main motivator for property owners who choose to put their land in conservation, Baker said.
This was certainly the case for John and Cathy Dodd Harris, the owners of Spotted Tavern Farm located at Dodd’s Corner in Hartwood. Cathy said their historic family farm is one of the few remaining agricultural areas of the county, and one that has become increasingly pressured by residential development.
The property—which contains active farmland and forest—is an historical and cultural gem. It contains the Spotted Tavern historical site, Spotted Tavern Farm, and the Latham/Beckhin cemetery. The property was also the site of a Civil War encampment and skirmishes for three local battles.
Through the Harris’ participation in the PDR program, Spotted Tavern Farm is placed into a perpetual conservation easement, which protects it from development. It also provides environmental benefits such as preserving forests, wildlife habitats and other natural resources, she explained.
“We hope that the preservation of Spotted Tavern will spur other landowners in this part of the county to consider placing easements on their properties to preserve the rural character of the area and to maintain Hartwood’s special sense of place,” Harris said.
Two other farms were also recently recognized by the county for participating in the PDR program—Walnut Hill Farm at Elm Springs, owned by Jeff and Virginia Adams, and Jones Farm, owned by Kenneth and Juanita Jones.
Milde said the addition of these three farms to the PDR program— as well as the dedication of $700,000 to PDR in the fiscal year 2018 budget—reflect the board’s commitment to continue the efforts they began over a decade ago to preserve the rural character of the county.
“It is not going to stay that way by itself,” Milde said. “Twelve years ago, Stafford had almost no land in conservation—PDR helped change that.”
Stafford is just one of 21 localities in the commonwealth to adopt a PDR program, according to VDACS. Nearby Fauquier County, for example, has built a robust PDR program. As of April 2017, approximately 12,123 acres in Fauquier have been approved for the program.
However, Stafford is one of only two localities in the state to adopt its own TDR program. This program redirects development by facilitating a transfer of development rights from a “sending” property to a “receiving” property that can accommodate growth.
Although the county’s TDR program is still in its infancy, there has been interest and county officials expect it to become another useful tool for preserving farmland and encouraging development in targeted growth areas.
Amanda Vicinanzo: 540/735-1975
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