PHOTO: Embrey Mill subdivision

The Embrey Mill subdivision in Stafford County.

STAFFORD County held public meetings this week designed to help county officials determine how best to manage future growth. This discussion is really about density: how many and where new commercial buildings, and especially residential units, should be built.

For cosmopolitans, high-density urban areas are the best places to live. They gladly eschew what suburbanites consider essential—larger homes, green backyards, relatively low crime and better schools—for the gastronomic and cultural amenities of big city life. And people who live in rural areas have no idea how either of them can stand to live so close to the neighbors.

None of them is wrong. People move to the city, to the suburbs or beyond to find the sweet spot that fits their current needs and where they feel most comfortable. But they often expect that the area they pick will stay the same over time. Growth patterns challenge those assumptions.

Unlike some communities in Virginia that are losing population, Stafford—along with the rest of the Fredericksburg region—is still growing. This is a much better problem to have than decline, but it does come with challenges, chief among them how to pay for the public infrastructure needed to accommodate a growing population.

Cluster subdivisions—where houses are built on smaller lots with reduced setbacks in exchange for at least half of the property preserved as open space—are seen as one solution. Under state law, fast-growing jurisdictions such as Stafford must set aside 40 percent of unimproved land for cluster development.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted an ordinance in January that limits where cluster subdivisions can be built, and preserves about half of all unimproved land zoned residential or agricultural. The new map replaced a more controversial one approved less than a year earlier that allowed more development.

Some county residents object to the new map because it will allow increased density and therefore more traffic along the Interstate–95 corridor, which cannot handle the current load. While that is a legitimate concern, growth will be a boon for the county over the long run, and blocking it is not advisable.

According to the latest Census Bureau figures, Stafford County had a population of 141,159 as of December, three times lower than the population of neighboring Prince William County, with its 450,763 inhabitants. Compared with Prince William, with 1,340 people per square mile, Stafford (525 people per square mile) is not densely populated. And Prince William’s population density is less than half of Fairfax County’s (2,922 people per square mile).

Although Stafford’s rapid growth—9.5 percent between 2010 following the Great Recession and 2017—may make it seem at times that new development is taking over the county, there would have to be a whole lot more of it before Stafford reaches the density levels of counties to the north. Stafford’s strategic location along the Potomac River and the I-95 corridor make it the logical place for new development as Fairfax and Prince William are built out. However, higher residential density does put stress on county services, which struggle to keep up with the demands of a burgeoning population.

The General Assembly’s recent overhaul of its ill-advised 2016 anti-proffer law—introduced by Del. Bob Thomas, a former Stafford BOS member, and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam—allows developers to once again make on- or off-site proffers “that the applicant deems reasonable and appropriate.”

The new law states that “nothing in the bill shall be deemed or interpreted to prohibit communications between an applicant or owner and the locality or to prohibit presentation, analysis, or discussion of the potential impacts of new residential development or other new residential use on the locality’s public facilities.”

Restoring the ability of fast-growing counties such as Stafford to accept proffers from developers to help offset the impact of new subdivisions gives county officials back a major tool to manage future growth, which will undoubtedly continue as Virginia’s population continues to concentrate in the northeast part of the commonwealth. In Stafford, cluster subdivisions—a hybrid between dense urban-style development and suburban sprawl—make the most sense.

Stafford residents who don’t want any growth at all should ask people living in the dying counties of southwest Virginia and Southside whether they’d like to trade places.

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