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Stafford may revise cluster ordinance

BY KATIE THISDELL

A threatened lawsuit, conflicting requirements for public utilities and public concerns about sprawl may lead the Stafford County Board of Supervisors to revise its recently adopted cluster ordinance.

Passed in June, the ordinance essentially calls for houses to be built closer together in order to keep a large area as open space. Connections to public water and sewer allow a developer to reduce the minimum lot size from 1 acres to one.

Getting that hookup to public utilities may be tricky, though, if a project is outside the urban services area, designated as where the county will extend water and sewer lines. County staff contends that a review would be needed first to see if a project fits with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which is essentially a guide for growth.

At last Tuesday’s board meeting, land-use attorney Clark Leming presented appeals for two cluster projects. Clift Farm Quarter is appealing a staff decision that a review is needed, while Jumping Branch Farm is appealing the Planning Commission’s recent denial of utilities.

“In all my experience, I don’t think I’ve come across a series of issues where there’s so much confusion and conflict because of competing issues of the county code and Comprehensive Plan,” Leming told supervisors. “If there’s a serious effort to cluster, the county desperately needs to clarify some of these issues involving water and sewer.”

The state requires localities to have a cluster-plan option on their books. Stafford revised its plan earlier this summer, adding the density bonus where public utilities are available. Cluster plans do not need public notice or public hearings, and are meant to be handled administratively.

“The point of this, I think, is that there be no politics in it—this is supposed to be a by-right function,” Leming said.

Earlier this year, the board took up a 141-acre mixed-use rezoning for 585 housing units and commercial space at Clift Farm Quarter, owned by national builder D.R. Horton. But the late-night public hearing in March, when many people commented in support of the athletic fields tied in with the project, was never finished.

County Administrator Anthony Romanello said the county and developer have been talking back and forth.

“Then when they filed their cluster plan, the issue was really never right for it to come back on the agenda,” he said.

D.R. Horton submitted the cluster plan in August for 196 1-acre lots on 472 acres. Planning Director Jeff Harvey said the proposal must be reviewed against the Comprehensive Plan.

A 2005 review on the same property had allowed for public utilities, and a sewer line is now on the site. But Harvey said the project had significantly changed from that time, with an increase of about 50 lots.

Capital Division President Mark Giganti wrote to the board that D.R. Horton is preparing a lawsuit against the county. A draft has been filed with the county attorney already.

“We are concerned that some on the board have taken or supported actions that waste taxpayer dollars, not to mention the time and resources of D.R. Horton,” Giganti’s letter states. “The actions have had the effect of denying our property rights—rights protected by state law—all to review something that has been reviewed and approved, and that exists in fact as well as in a conferred right.”

Board Chairwoman Susan Stimpson moved to uphold Harvey’s decision, and the board voted 4–3 to require an OK from the Planning Commission to hook up to utilities.

“I’m not so sure that we don’t have a tempest in the teapot that we’ve created here that we somehow have to fix the cluster ordinance,” Stimpson said.

Supervisors Jack Cavalier, Paul Midle and Cord Sterling voted against it.

“It’s not whether I like it. It’s not whether I dislike it,” Sterling said. “It’s a case of, Is there water and sewer there? Is water and sewer permitted? And to me, it’s pretty clear it has been.”

The Planning Commission drafted a new cluster ordinance over five months. The first application was from Jumping Branch Farm LLC, for a property off Truslow Road in Hartwood. The Urban Services Area touches nearly all edges of the property, essentially creating a doughnut with the 317-acre tract in the middle.

The Planning Commission in September unanimously denied the connection to public utilities. Leming appealed to supervisors, who unanimously agreed with the commission after hearing public comments.

The developer could have hooked up to public water, because of a utility ordinance that would have required the connection based on proximity. The appeal was just for sewer connections.

Resident Thomas Motta, who lives in the adjoining Cardinal Forest subdivision, worried about traffic cutting through his neighborhood, as well as sprawl related to expanding the urban services area.

“There is always going to be another parcel that is adjacent to the USA—that’s always going to be the case,” said Motta, one of several who spoke against the plan.

Supervisor Sterling suggested the board take up cluster plans again at a future meeting.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975

kthisdell@freelancestar.com

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