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Will TDR program expand in Stafford?

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Three developers are considering how they could use Stafford County’s newest land-use program for a 123-acre tract they’ve purchased in the rural Brooke area. 

Together, Rob Gollahon, Aubrey Hawkins and Mike Degen have a contract on the property, called the Lynn farm, which is potentially one of the largest eligible pieces of land in the program under consideration tonight. A limited number of homes would be built while the majority of the land could remain undeveloped, the trio said in a recent interview.

An expanded version of the pilot transfer-of-development rights program is up for a public hearing before the Board of Supervisors at 7 p.m. at the George L. Gordon Jr. Government Center, 1300 Courthouse Road.

The TDR program is designed to let landowners move development from rural areas into urban areas that are better suited for growth. Property owners enter into the agreement voluntarily.

“There’s not much land left out there that’s not owned by developers,” Supervisor Paul Milde, the program’s most vocal proponent, said at the interview with Gollahon, Hawkins and Degen. He said he has been talking to them for some time to convince them that TDR is worthwhile.

The developers are also looking at properties in the Courthouse area, where the TDR program would let them build houses, offices and apartments more densely than otherwise allowed.

Along Marlborough Point Road, signs advertise “homesite available” on the less-developed side of the peninsula along Potomac Creek, while construction progresses in areas on the northern side of the road.

The growth that’s coming worries Milde, who lives on the peninsula that he calls environmentally and culturally sensitive. Rolling hills on the Lynn property have remnants from 1862 Confederate earthworks, he said.

The property has two houses with barns and horses, along with 3,000 feet of waterfront property along Accokeek Creek across from the Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve, which is open publicly just a handful of days each year.

“It’s beautiful and I want to keep it looking like that,” Milde said.

This is the first time the three developers have worked together. The entire 131-acre property is assessed at $1.6 million, and it was listed by Alex Long for $1.4 million.

They would not disclose their purchase price while the 123 acres they are purchasing is under contract. The online listing includes ways to monetize conservation of the land.

The property is part of the designated TDR “sending” area, bounded by the Potomac and Aquia creeks, east of the CSX rail line.

Gollahon said under the land’s by-right designation, the trio could build up to 60 homes on 1-acre lots. Half the area is wetlands, limiting the developable acres.

With TDR, they’d consider building at most 10 houses, which would sell for $500,000 to $1 million. They would conserve the rest of the land with an easement.

TDR: GOOD OR BAD?

Critics of the TDR program worry that builders would have a “free for all” in the Courthouse area.

Building permits must still be approved, and countywide, the number of possible units won’t go up, though they would increase in the Courthouse area.

Through TDR, no public notice or hearings are required for development that is denser than currently allowed, which would be the case if a rezoning changed allowable uses. Proffers—promises from a developer to offset impacts on county services—are typically negotiated during rezonings, so some critics argue that proffer money would be lost.

But Gollahon said development on their property isn’t bound by proffers or public notice. Essentially, they’d move their allowable use a few miles west.

“Developers don’t get anything for free,” Degen said.

He said instead of developing land where they’d have to install wells and septic fields, they could build more densely in areas served by public utilities and a better transportation network.

“Someone could rezone and use that land however they want anyways,” Degen said of the Courthouse area. “Why can’t we get the lots we’re supposed to, and protect the land?”

After months of debate and several public hearings on different iterations of the pilot program, the county adopted a transfer-of-development rights program in February, with Supervisors Cord Sterling and Susan Stimpson dissenting. 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 has been the subject of dispute for decades.

The newest version of TDR endorsed by the Planning Commission 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. The commission voted 5–2 to recommend board approval, with Darrell English and Scott Hirons against.

“If this is truly designed as a ‘pilot’ program and not a political payback scheme for developers then it should stand to reason the smaller the sending area, the better. If TDRs are a functional tool that will work in Stafford County, then we should keep the sending and receiving areas small, and judge the success from there,” Hirons wrote to board members in an email this week.

ENDING AN IMPASSE

Debate has centered on that piece of undeveloped subdivision land, which the county is mandated to provide infrastructure to under a court order. Preservationists, landowners and the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust have debated TDR’s effect on that land for months.

Attorney Mark Jenkins represents four clients who own 284 of the total 346 lots in Crow’s Nest Harbour. He said the owners are serious about wanting to use the TDR program to end the standstill over the property.

“This could be a real path to ultimately resolve the matter,” Jenkins said.

It is unclear what that would mean for the remaining lots in the platted subdivision.

“You have a right to say you bought the lot and say the county is going to be constructing roads,” Jenkins said of the 1995 court order valued at $2.2 million. “The expectation should be there that it’ll be finished.”

Jenkins had been in discussions with the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, which owns a handful of lots and the heron rookery, on how to preserve and manage the land. They failed to reach an agreement.

“Preservation is a word that means a lot of things,” Jenkins said. The owners could transfer the land to a government or private entity, if not NVCT, for it to be used for camping, forestry, or some type of public access.

At least one of the four limited liability corporations that Jenkins represents, 7K Investments, already owns land in the Courthouse receiving area. Building closer to public infrastructure is cheaper for developers and more cost-effective for the public, he said.

Stafford officials spent years preparing the Redevelopment Plan for the Courthouse Area, and later, the smaller Urban Development Area pilot plan as well. Those plans are guidelines for how growth should proceed for the area surrounding the crossroads of U.S. 1 and Courthouse Road, envisioned as a central downtown for Stafford.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975

kthisdell@freelancestar.com

 

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