Protecting the Rural Crescent

Virginia bluebells along the Bull Run Tributary

Lately in Prince William County (PWC) there has been a lot of buzz around if development should be placed in the rural crescent or not. Sashia Scott, the Community Organizer for the Prince William County Hub of Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS), got the chance to ask Elena Schlossberg and Charlie Grymes, local advocates, their thoughts on the Rural Crescent: why it is important, what it is, and whether or not development should take place there.

What is the Rural Crescent?

Prince William County basically created an urban growth boundary to keep the urban spread under control. Essentially, there was an area designated for growth and an area that was to be rural and protected; that protected rural land is now known as the rural crescent. The rural crescent covers around 80,000 acres which includes lands located south of the Route 234 corridor and west of Route 15. When asked what the rural crescent is, Elena answered with the following:

The rural crescent was adopted in 1998 with strong bipartisan support. Not only was it seen as a means to direct critical infrastructure dollars to the development area where it was most needed and benefited the largest number of residents, but it was also viewed as a tool to protect the environment, our drinking water and promote agriculture. The rural crescent comprises most of the Occoquan Watershed and serves a key role in groundwater recharge.

Why is it important?

As Elena stated before, “the rural crescent comprises most of the Occoquan Watershed and serves as a key role in groundwater recharge.” The Occoquan watershed includes the entirety of the Occoquan Reservoir which supplies drinking water for millions of people within Northern Virginia. Generally, eastern Prince WIlliam is dependent on the Occoquan reservoir for daily clean drinking water. Should PWC choose to expand development into the rural crescent, the water quality conditions of the Occoquan River could largely be affected. Which brings us to our next question, should development take place within the rural crescent?

Should there be development in the Rural Crescent?

From what you’ve read above, you can see that the rural crescent was originally designed to stay rural to not only control development but also protect the environment surrounding it. This environment includes the Occoquan reservoir, which supplies drinking water for many in Northern Virginia. When asked about development and the rural crescent, the following is what Charlie had to say:

As the population increases, construction of new houses and other development is inevitable. Where we have choices is in deciding what development will be located in what places. Deciding where to locate new offices, subdivisions, industrial facilities, etc. is done through a long-range Comprehensive Plan and zoning.

Inefficient planning is expensive. Scattering development forces construction of extra schools, fire/police stations, water/sewer lines, and other public facilities – and especially new roads. A taxpayer rebellion in 1998 led the county supervisors to define a Development Area where growth would be focused. Land closest to the job centers in DC/Fairfax, with the shortest commute distance, was placed in the Development Area. Efficient planning minimized the cost to expand the bus and rail transit systems to serve new development, and minimized the need to keep raising property taxes to pave more roads deeper into the countryside.

In the 1998 Comprehensive Plan, new public infrastructure was limited in the part of the county furthest away from the job centers, in what was designated the Rural Area. The Comprehensive Plan is updated about every 10 years, and the 2008 version reaffirmed the value of encouraging development in the Development Area.

It makes sense to continue on that path today. Land speculators want to change the pattern, but they are seeking private profit at the expense of the general public. Abandoning the cost-effective approach to land use and transportation planning will create unnecessary new traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, and trigger demands for expensive new public buildings scattered across the county.

When talking about development, it is important to keep in mind that the county just recently adopted climate resolution goals that they should be working towards. It is imperative to remember that transportation is a big player in CO2 emissions. By creating development in a completely rural area, that would increase the need for transportation via cars. While keeping climate change in mind, Elena explained that:

Twenty years ago, climate change was just beginning to become a part of our vernacular. Today, the entire world is racing to mitigate the damage we have wrought as a species on the planet. The rural crescent was prescient; who could have predicted ”think locally, act locally” would put the rural crescent, and Prince William County, on the map as a 21st century model with natural resources already in place to fight climate change? The numerous proposals to develop the rural crescent with industrial uses and an outer beltway are in clear contradiction to our goals to capture carbon and promote smart growth strategies. We are on the precipice of something exceptional or something terrible. We will either move towards a future with clean air and clean water, implementing a robust Purchase of Development Rights Program, incentivizing our rural economy opportunities, or we will move backwards, to a time before we understood the consequences of poor land use decisions. There is no removing thousands and thousands of acres from the watershed, replacing it with tens of millions of square feet of impervious surfaces while at the same time removing mature forests and selling the community the snake oil that it won’t have significant long-term consequences is foolhardy.

Now that you know a little bit about the rural crescent, what it is, why it is important, and development within the rural crescent, we want to encourage you to form your own thoughts behind the rural crescent and if PWC should add urban development there. To conclude, we are going to leave you with a thought-provoking question that Charlie Grymes would like for us all to keep in mind: When you hear demands to develop the rural area, ask “who will benefit and who will pay?”

Thanks so much for reading!