Stafford supervisors have once again deferred downzoning about 90,000 acres of rural county land in an effort to help curb sprawl in the county.
The 4–3 vote on Tuesday night leaves supervisors divided on a proposal to change the density in agricultural parcels from one home per 3 acres to one home per 10 acres.
Supervisors said they want more public comment on the issue and cited the coronavirus as the reason for the latest delay. Rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the region have shuttered many businesses and offices, including the county’s government center, where board meetings are held.
Andrew Spence, community engagement director, said the positivity rate for COVID-19 is about four times higher today than it was last October, when a well-attended public hearing on downzoning was held at Colonial Forge High School. Spence said a similar meeting at a high school today would put the community in jeopardy of contracting the virus. He also said alternative public hearing methods, such as video conferencing, would deny many rural residents an opportunity to participate in a discussion that directly impacts their land.
“Unfortunately, rural areas are the places where we are challenged the most by broadband,” said Spence. “That would be unfair to them to tackle a situation that may affect a number of those people without providing the opportunity to access that discussion.”
During the supervisors’ October joint meeting with the Planning Commission, about 40 citizens participated in the public hearing. Only three spoke in favor of the endeavor, while the rest expressed concerns about reduced land values and limits on the use of their private land. After the hearing, members of the Planning Commission voted 7–0 against downzoning.
Following the public hearing, supervisors deferred any action on downzoning to Dec. 15, when it was again deferred until January. On Tuesday, supervisors voted 4–3 to defer action again, until the coronavirus subsides.
Supervisors Tom Coen, Cindy Shelton and Tinesha Allen each voted against the latest deferral.
“Why have this an open-ended thing where people are not going to know?” asked Allen.
Shelton said constituents in her district have contacted her regarding pending land sales that they have had to postpone, awaiting the supervisors’ downzoning decision.
“They’ve held off because there’s no movement, there’s no stability in Stafford County,” said Shelton. “I will never vote for anything that’s going to devalue someone’s land without any compensation.”
Michael Stonehill, president of Brookstone Development and Building Corp. in Stafford, said his company buys property in the county from landowners who have resided in Stafford for 40 years or more.
“These are the people that are affected by downzoning the most,” said Stonehill, who said he’s “very troubled and very worried” about future land deals in the county based on the supervisors’ inability to arrive at a consensus on the issue.
“You got the Planning Commission voting 7–0, you’ve got the county people that show up, and 95 percent say they oppose downzoning, and then you have the board doing just the opposite,” Stonehill said. “Are [supervisors] going to come back in two, three, four months and just do the 10-acre downzoning, even though most people in the county vote against it?”
Citing downzonings in Spotsylvania and Prince William counties, Stafford Commissioner of the Revenue Scott Mayausky said tax revenue fell in those localities.
“If they lose half their value, that’s millions of tax dollars that we could potentially lose, not to mention what happens to [property owners] personally,” said Mayausky. “It could be as much as a 50 percent reduction in property value, and there’s potentially over $600 million worth of value [in Stafford] at risk to those property owners.”
Last night, Coen, who opposes downzoning, attempted to eliminate the idea altogether by sending the issue back to the Planning Commission, which will soon begin work on the county’s comprehensive plan. The plan highlights the county’s goals and objectives, including focusing about 50 percent of the county’s growth into the Targeted Growth Area, where water, sewer and electrical services exist.
“This will basically set us back three years,” said Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer.
But Coen said it would not set the county back, but would instead move the county forward with a clearer vision of what county residents want.
“It still allows the Planning Commission to address the growth issues in a more holistic way,” said Coen. “It doesn’t have downzoning hanging over the residents and more particularly, the Planning Commission. They can do their work in a more honest form without thinking at some point, something else is going to happen.”
James Scott Baron: