Stafford supervisors unanimously approved a new ordinance and map Tuesday night that outlines where cluster subdivisions can be built in the county.

The Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission held a joint public hearing at which people spoke mostly in opposition to the map, which replaces a controversial map approved last March.

The new map includes five areas where cluster subdivisions were not permitted in the March map, but will be now. It removes one area, in the Griffis–Widewater District, from cluster subdivision eligibility.

Under the new ordinance adopted Tuesday, cluster subdivisions will no longer be permitted in areas zoned R-2 and R-3, although Planning Director Jeff Harvey said in his presentation at the meeting that cluster subdivisions “have not been allowed in those zoning districts since 2012.”

The cluster subdivision ordinance allows developers to build houses on smaller lots with reduced setbacks in exchange for preserving at least half of the property for “open space.” In theory, this results in the same number of homes as a traditional subdivision, but critics say that does not happen, because developers include land unsuitable for houses, such as power-line easements, to meet the open-space requirement.

Planning Department staff is writing changes to the zoning language that might close some of these loopholes. The Planning Commission will discuss draft changes at its February meeting. 

"If the [board of supervisors] concurs [with the changes], the public hearing process would begin either late spring or early summer," said Andrew Spence, program director for community engagement. 

County officials say the new map is necessary to comply with requirements under state code that Stafford, as a high-growth county, must set aside a minimum of 40 percent of unimproved land for cluster developments that preserve open space. The change to the ordinance and map approved in March brought a legal challenge from landowners and developers, who claimed they were not given proper notice and that the new ordinance did not meet the 40 percent minimum.

The map adopted Tuesday preserves 49.8 percent of unimproved land zoned for agricultural or residential use, Harvey said.

Of the 10 people who spoke at the hearing, only one fully supported the map. Some said it unfairly restricts landowners, while others said it did not go far enough to limit growth.

Clay Crocker, whose family owns the 700-acre Hampstead Farm in Hartwood, told supervisors they made decisions over the past decade aimed at preventing the farm from being clear-cut for development. They placed 310 acres under a protective easement for a stream and wetlands mitigation bank, which will restore 25,000 feet of streams and eight acres of wetlands to their natural state.

Mitigation banks earn and sell environmental credits to outside agencies to offset the ecological effects of new development. Crocker said their mitigation bank has sold credits to VDOT and to Stafford County.

When the Crockers decided to establish the mitigation bank on Hampstead farm, cluster subdivisions were permitted by-right everywhere in the county. He said family memebers made their decisions thinking that the area of the farm placed under protective easement could meet the open-space requirements of cluster development, should they decide to sell in the future.

Under the map adopted Tuesday, however, Hampstead lies a few hundred feet outside the area where cluster developments are permitted.

“We feel kind of left in the lurch by the loss of the cluster development option,” Crocker said. “We thought, if the whole point of cluster development is to preserve open spaces, why don’t we be proactive and restore these streams and wetlands, rather than have a developer come in and clear-cut later.”

He said preserving cluster development as a by-right option could have created incentives for similar mitigation projects by other landowners, with the idea that the preserved land could meet future open-space requirements.

“We’re doing the exact opposite of [what other developers are doing],” Crocker said. “We were trying to save in advance.”

Wendell Chandler said that an already-built cluster development close to his neighborhood near Curtis Park in the Hartwood area has caused the neighborhood’s lake to flood and water to fill the emergency spillway that allows for controlled release of water from the dam it maintains.

He said the dam is considered “high-hazard” because it prevents water from flooding U.S. 17 and that flooding such as he saw this year hasn’t occurred in the two decades he’s lived in his house.

“We’ve replaced two of our own culverts and we are responsible for the dam. We get no assistance on that,” Chandler said. “I understand you have some state mandates. But there are impacts to the public. I would challenge the board to ask some detailed questions about what are the downstream impacts [of development].”

Other speakers expressed concerns with increased traffic, pressure on existing roads, schools and other infrastructure and runoff, sediment build-up and other environmental problems that could be caused by new development.

“I would like to see the county going forward to get the roads and infrastructure to support whatever cluster development that is being brought forth, and not pass the costs on to the taxpayer to improve the roads,” said county resident Laurel Baker.

Supervisors said their hands are tied by state requirements and the new map at least lets them identify where in the county cluster developments will be allowed.

“Just because a piece of property is in one of the cluster areas doesn’t mean you’re going to get a cluster,” Dudenhefer said. “It’s just eligible. We are required by the state to make 40 percent of all land in Stafford available for cluster development. We don’t have an option. What we’re doing is trying to decide where is the place to put them.”

Harvey said the new map attempts to keep cluster developments close to or within the county’s “urban services area”—property on either side of Interstate 95 where public sewer and water are available.

“The cluster area is where we want to put growth,” Supervisor Tom Coen said. “We are forced to do something, and we want to keep growth where we want it, not in the rural areas.”

Supervisor Jack Cavalier noted that some developers in his Griffis–Widewater District have clear-cut some of the land so extensively that they have caused “total devastation.” He said he supported the new map because it removes Widewater as an area where cluster developments are allowed.

“I will not reward [developers who did clear-cutting] by allowing them to come in and do by-right clustering,” he said. “I think this is a better option for Widewater.”

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 @flsadele