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Stafford’s program for growth debated

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More apartments, townhomes and offices could rise in Stafford County’s courthouse area without public notice under an expanded development program recommended to the Board of Supervisors.

The newest change to the pilot transfer-of-development rights program—or TDR—was approved by the Planning Commission on Wednesday night on a 5–2 vote. Commission members Scott Hirons and Darrell English voted against the project.

In theory, TDR lets localities move development from rural areas into urban areas that are better suited for growth. Property owners enter into the agreement voluntarily.

Stafford’s pilot program would move growth from the rural Brooke area to the urban Courthouse district. Supervisors approved that plan in February in a 5–2 vote, with Susan Stimpson and Cord Sterling dissenting, and TDR went into effect April 20.

At that time, the “receiving” area for development in the Courthouse district covered 550 acres, and the “sending” area in Brooke excluded most of the lots in an undeveloped subdivision that’s been the subject of dispute for decades.

The newest version of TDR approved by the Planning Commission on Wednesday expands the Courthouse development area to 1,900 acres—an increase of nearly 250 percent—and expands the sending area to include all of the Crow’s Nest Harbour subdivision.

A staff member from the Planning & Zoning Department said Wednesday that landowners in Crow’s Nest Harbour, adjacent to the ecologically and historically significant Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve, asked to be included, so they could sever their development rights and sell or transfer them to the Courthouse area.

To do that, the eligible development area in the Courthouse district had to be expanded. As a result, two additional zoning districts were included as areas that could receive the transferred development: R–4 manufactured homes and B–3 office.

Construction in those zones is allowed “by right,” meaning public hearings or notice aren’t required.

The Board of Supervisors has the final say on the proposed changes.


The Planning Commission’s Hirons, a longtime opponent of how the pilot TDR program has been structured, questioned the new changes that could lead to development without public notice. For example, in B–3 office zoning districts, up to half the space in 90-foot-tall buildings could contain apartments.

Yet developers would not be required to contribute proffers to the county to offset the impacts of that residential growth.

“We could potentially have development that we have no input on, no public review on, in an area that we have spent a significant amount of money to say what kinds of development we want,” Hirons said. He encouraged the commission members to strongly consider their votes.

“We have absolutely no review, in an area closer to the town center that’s envisioned by citizens,” he said. “We’re really saying to citizens, we don’t care about your input.”

Stafford officials spent years preparing the Redevelopment Plan for the Courthouse Area, and later, the smaller Urban Development Area pilot plan as well, currently on hold. Those plans are guidelines for how growth should proceed for the area surrounding the crossroads of U.S. 1 and Courthouse Road. A new interchange at nearby Interstate 95 is in the planning stage.

But some in Stafford say they’re just as concerned with the fate of Crow’s Nest Harbour and other rural plots bounded by the Potomac and Aquia creeks, east of the CSX rail line. A lack of public utilities has stood in the way of construction there, and has led to a pending lawsuit against Stafford.

Cecilia Kirkman, former Planning Commission member and co-founder of Save Crow’s Nest, had made suggestions earlier this summer that she said would balance public good and the cost to taxpayers.

“Instead, a majority on the Planning Commission approved a TDR program that fails to provide a single square inch of public access to lands in the TDR program, at a potential cost to taxpayers of over $53 million in lost proffers,” Kirkman wrote in an email this week. “In short, the TDR ordinance is nothing more than a raw deal for taxpayers, and a sweetheart deal for real estate speculators, developers and campaign contributors.”

Commission member Steven Apicella said that the UDA and RDA areas are already envisioned as centers for development.

An attorney representing owners of 284 of the 347 lots in Crow’s Nest Harbour said in an email that the TDR program preserves land without using taxpayer money to buy the properties. Mark Jenkins wrote that severing the development rights is equivalent to proffering open space, and that it’s beneficial for dense development to be closer to existing and planned infrastructure.

Six people spoke during the public hearing, including two representatives from the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust—which hopes to preserve Crow’s Nest—an attorney for landowners, and three residents.

Rock Hill resident Tom Gregory said that TDR encourages too much growth and eliminates due process.

Former supervisor Joe Brito said the ordinance doesn’t prevent timbering in Crow’s Nest and surrounding areas.

“Normally I’d be here supporting preservation, but this ordinance isn’t about preservation. This ordinance is about creating more density,” Brito said.

But commission chairman Mike Rhodes said TDR is one of few options available for focusing development.

“The TDR process has had a long and imperfect road, but it does represent, at the end of the day, in my opinion, one of very few tools to help guide and direct growth,” he said.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975


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