What Happens When Government Thinks No One is Paying Attention
Buffers are a width of space filled (from one side to the other) with woody vegetation, landscaping and/or preserved trees. They are an important part of the green open space found in attractive, sustainable communities.
Buffers increase property values, improve our air and drinking water, create wildlife corridors, help keep us healthy and happy, and separate dissimilar uses. Buffers attract home buyers and businesses.
To developers, buffers are “unusable space” that limits the amount of land available for impervious surfaces such as parking lots and buildings. Beware. The current regulations to provide buffers are under attack.
The set-up (described below) is complicated, but the game plan is clear. Supervisors will be asked to change the rules so site plan deals can be cut in the dark.
This story began more than a year ago when the Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) approved a resolution authorizing the developer-dominated Commercial Development Committee (CDC) to review the County's buffer standards.
Although the scope was limited to commercial development, the CDC recommendations also cover residential uses. The CDC is calling for a two phased approach.
Phase 1, expected to be up for a Planning Commission vote on September 20, recommends two major changes (read the proposed text here):
- Transfer buffer standards from the Zoning Ordinance, where a variance requires a public hearing, to the Design Construction Standards Manual, where waivers are approved by staff with no public notice, and
- Transfer authority to approve waivers from the County’s green infrastructure experts in Public Works to the Development Services Dept.
If the BOCS approves Phase 1, less qualified staff will approve buffer changes to site plans, with no public notice. It will be easy for developers to replace trees and landscaping with stormwater facilities, utilities, sidewalks, retaining walls, and other development infrastructure.
Buffers as we know them would essentially be eliminated. County government and citizens would lose an important tool to protect property values and attract economic development.
Phase 2 involves a more in-depth review and an additional BOCS resolution. At their August 25th meeting, CDC sub-committee members discussed “needs” to change the definition for buffer. They put forward the idea that a buffer was “for more than just growing trees.” As long as the intent (read revised buffer definition) is met, they said, other uses should be allowed, specifically stormwater infrastructure.
Phase 2 is still in the beginning stages. If it were to be approved as currently presented, waivers would be largely eliminated. Developers would have blanket authority to replace buffers with grey development infrastructure.
This means less green open space and more stormwater problems. Prince William taxpayers recently invested $1 million after stormwater eroded a stream bank in Woodbridge to the point where it was just feet away from the Prince William Senior Center.
Buffer standards are boring, until a shopping center is proposed for the property behind your home. Stormwater management is also boring, until there’s a flood. Consider what’s happening right now in Houston.
Here’s the bottom line. If the BOCS goal is indeed to enhance the County’s capacity to attract high quality commercial development there’s no better tool than an attractive, sustainable community. Buffers are key to achieving this goal.
How Prince William develops is a local choice, governed largely by local rules that carry local benefits and consequences. Your Supervisor is being asked decrease the quality of our communities and increase developer influence.
Holding developers to a high standard can only benefit our community. Email Supervisors today to reject the proposed buffer amendments and advance a healthy, sustainable future for all Prince William residents.
This review covers the current proposal for changes to buffer standards. It is subject to change until it is published for a vote at the Planning Commission. This buffer proposal is slated for a Planning Commission vote on September 20 and a BOCS vote on October 17.