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Is agricultural zoning in Stafford having the desired effect?
Stafford's supervisors are considering a plan to change
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BY JONAS BEALS
Stafford County supervisors are scheduled to adopt a new comprehensive plan in September.
If approved, it would be the first major revision of the county's master development document in more than 20 years.
The proposed plan focuses on the center of the county along Interstate 95--where supervisors hope to locate a majority of the commercial, industrial and residential growth in the next 20 years.
But what happens outside that corridor may have a greater impact on Stafford's future. That is where suburban sprawl could occur--the type of growth that has a reputation for chewing up natural resources and putting a financial burden on existing taxpayers.
Half of Stafford County is zoned for agriculture, or A-1. That land can be, or has been, subdivided by right into 3-acre residential lots. That is the smallest minimum lot size for rural zoning of any county between Washington and Richmond.
The Stafford zoning ordinance says: "The purpose of the A-1 district is to reserve areas for traditional agricultural activities and to provide for their continuation as well as preservation of areas of rural character."
Jesse Richardson, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, does not believe agricultural zoning achieves what most localities intend. Instead of preserving rural land, he said, it can encourage the sprawl that many localities try to avoid.
"Agricultural zoning has never worked," he said. "I don't think it will ever work. A lot of localities probably know that it doesn't work.
"A community needs to get together and decide two things," he said. "Is there enough agricultural property to preserve, and is that really what you want? Some communities don't want farmland, and they don't want real agriculture."
Instead of preserving farmland, agricultural zoning may only be preserving development value for owners of large tracts of land.
DOES LOT SIZE MATTER?
In most areas of Stafford, A-1 property has its highest value when developed for residential use.
"Agricultural zoning in and of itself is pretty worthless as far as preserving agriculture," Richardson said. "It often generates sprawl. It's mostly turned into residential or country estates. To call it agricultural zoning is disingenuous. Large lots is the definition of sprawl."
Dividing agricultural land for developmentVIRGINIA Farms in 2002: 47,606 Farms in 2007: 47,383 Farmland in 2002: 8,624,829 acres Farmland in 2007: 8,103,925 acres Change in farm acreage, 2002--07: minus 6 percent STAFFORD COUNTY Total acreage: 172,800 Farms in 2002: 236 Farms in 2007: 233 Farmland in 2002: 26,128 acres (15.12 percent) Farmland in 2007: 19,816 acres (11.47 percent) Change in farm acreage, 2002--07: minus 24 percent SPOTSYLVANIA COUNTY Total acreage: 256,640 Farms in 2002: 369 Farms in 2007: 359 Farmland in 2002: 56,346 acres (21.96 percent) Farmland in 2007: 52,230 acres (20.35 percent) Change in farm acreage, 2002--07: minus 7 percent PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY Total acreage: 216,320 Farms in 2002: 350 Farms in 2007: 345 Farmland in 2002: 32,549 acres (15.05 percent) Farmland in 2007: 32,816 acres (15.17 percent) Change in farm acreage, 2002--07: plus 1 percent
--2007 Census of Agriculture and the 2007 National Resources Inventory
How area localities handle agriculture zoning
Stafford County's A-1 agricultural zoning allows property to be divided into residential lots with a minimum size of 3 acres.
Even the highly urbanized Prince William County has a 10-acre minimum lot size for property zoned A-1.
Loudoun county has myriad rural zoning classifications, one of which requires a minimum lot size of 40 acres when subdividing.
Other counties, such as Fauquier, use complex sliding scales to calculate the maximum number of lots that can be subdivided from a given parcel of agricultural property. Typically, the larger the parcel, the lower the number of lots that can be broken off.
Still other counties, such as Culpeper and Chesterfield, have a minimum lot size requirement but add caveats. In Culpeper, agricultural land can be subdivided into 10-acre parcels, but that can be lowered to 5 acres if the lot has at least 250 feet of frontage on a state-maintained road.
Some Fredericksburg area localities take time into consideration. In Culpeper County's A-1 districts, only two property subdivisions are allowed every five years.
All of these criteria are designed, in part, to preserve open space and rural character while discouraging residential growth. Whether they work in practice is debatable.
In Stafford, 30 acres of environmentally suitable A-1 property can be subdivided by right into a maximum of 10 lots.
In Spotsylvania, by comparison, agricultural zoning requires at least 10 acres per lot. In Spotsylvania, a 30-acre parcel zoned A-3 can be subdivided into only 3 lots.
The most common minimum agricultural lot size in Virginia is 5 acres. In theory, Stafford's 3-acre minimum lot size could spare rural land by using up only 3 acres at a time, rather than 10 or 20. But smaller lots can mean more lots--with more people and traffic requiring infrastructure and county services.
"Minimum lot sizes in A-1 districts are all over the place," said Ted McCormack, director of governmental affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties. He said that in some counties A-1 districts are used as "holding areas" for future growth.
"In terms of the local government toolbox to foster and support agricultural uses," he said, "larger lot zoning in the A-1 districts is one of the tools. A number of jurisdictions have done that."