Rural Areas Implementation



Planning Commission recommendation for RA lot development, phasing, clustering, family division regulations, and process for receiving public input on proposed ordinances



Graham, Cilimberg, Benish, McDowell





April 12, 2006


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The Guiding Principles for the Rural Areas recognize eight defining principles that are important components of the RA: agriculture, forestry resources, land preservation and conservation, water supply resources, natural resources, scenic resources, and historical, archeological and cultural resources. When the Rural Areas section of the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2005, residential development was identified as the greatest threat to the principles of the Rural Areas.  The RA Plan emphasizes the importance of implementing these principles and contains the goal to "Reduce the level and rate of residential development in the Rural Areas and minimize the impacts of permitted development."  The plan refers directly to phasing and clustering (RPDs) as tools that the County should "aggressively pursue."


The Board of Supervisors identified priorities for implementation of the RA Plan at the time it was adopted.  Each priority was measured by its potential to lessen development pressure on the Rural Areas and by its potential to have the most significant impact on what the Guiding Principles seek to achieve, both in the short term and in the long term. Phasing and clustering were identified as the top two priorities for implementation, with phasing to be completed first.  It was later decided by the Board to implement phasing and clustering simultaneously.


On September 14, 2005, the Board held a joint work session with the Planning Commission. The Board determined that the issues concerning implementation of phasing and clustering should be discussed in greater depth by the Commission (see Attachment A - Work Session staff report). The Commission was also asked to recommend a public information/review process to the Board. In addition, staff was directed to provide experiences of other localities concerning phasing.


The Commission's deliberations since September have included guest speakers from Madison and Rockingham Counties to share their extensive experiences with using phasing as a growth control measure.  A copy of the minutes of that discussion is attached as reference (Attachment B).    In response to the Planning Commission's request for information concerning impacts phasing may have on the acquisition of conservation easements, conservation easement specialists from the Nature Conservancy and Piedmont Environmental Council were invited to attend a later work session. These experts agreed that while it would be difficult to determine if there would be a reduction of easement donations, slowing growth through phasing would provide a greater overall benefit to the Rural Areas. 


On March 14, the Commission completed its discussion.  This report includes the Commission's recommendations for a framework for phasing, clustering and family divisions (Attachment C).  An expedited public information/input process has also been recommended and is included in this report.




Goal 2.1:  Protect and/or preserve the County's rural character.

Goal 2.2:  Protect and/or preserve the County's natural resources.




The Planning Commission has addressed phasing and clustering concepts as both separate ordinances and ordinances that work in unison.  In addition, as family divisions were recommended for exemption from both phasing and clustering ordinances, the Commission addressed the time of ownership both before and after subdivision.


Although the majority of the Commission agreed to the ordinance framework plan (Attachment C), not all items in the framework received unanimous support. The following summary of the major framework criteria, issues, and impacts also includes many of the concerns raised at the work sessions.  


Phasing:  Major framework standards, issues and impacts of phasing subdivisions are identified below.

    Phasing or time-release of subdivisions addresses the rate of subdivision; the number of division rights assigned in 1980 would not be affected by phasing, i.e., the ultimate potential of rural areas density would not be affected. 

    Two new lots in ten-year increments is the recommended rate of subdivision; more lots and/or a shorter time period would not effectively slow subdivision activity.

    While phasing could slow down future subdivision activity, it may not affect the number of building permits issued within the Rural Areas in the foreseeable future, as there is a substantial inventory of existing lots: 10,571 parcels in the Rural Areas are undeveloped (i.e., 2005 real estate improvements assessment < $25,000).

    A process to track used and remaining subdivision rights would need to be developed.


Clustering:  Major framework standards, issues and impacts with clustering of subdivision are identified below.

    Intended to provide a more effective land use pattern that preserves and protects the County's scenic, natural, agricultural, and forestal resources.  Clustering would not affect density of Rural Areas development.

    Clustering would be the mandated form of subdivision in the Rural Areas, with few exceptions.

    Current regulations for clustering (Rural Preservation Developments) provide an opportunity to improve land development patterns, but its effectiveness is compromised because it is an optional form of subdivision. 

    The identification and protection of resources would be the highest priority and residential lots would be located in area with the least impact on resources.

    As many resources as feasible would be placed into a preservation parcel.

    All residential lots would be accessed from interior roads.

    A maximum lot size of two-acres for residential parcels (an additional acre would be possible to provide water/septic).

    Large lot subdivisions (greater than 2-acre lots) would no longer be permitted.  The majority of the Commission agreed that larger lots did not fulfill the intent of the Comprehensive Plan and would continue to erode rural lands.

    The identification of resources to protect the best location for the residential lots may be best achieved by subjective means; ranking of resources may not achieve the desired results.

    Smaller lots for residential development could address some existing affordable housing issues.


Phasing and Clustering Combined:  Although both phasing and clustering could operate independently, they could be modified to be implemented together.  The following list provides some of the modifications and issues with combining the two ordinances together.

    Phasing and mandated clustering operating together would be unique to Albemarle County in Virginia.

    The preservation parcel would be exempted from phasing and would be recorded with the first phase.  A driveway to any residence on the preservation parcel would be permitted.

    Road construction could be phased, in correlation with the number of lots permitted.

    The residue of the parent parcel would hold the unused development rights, if the cluster consisted of one parent parcel.

    If multiple parcels were combined into one cluster development, the unused development rights would be assigned by the owners to one residue parcel.

    An approved preliminary subdivision plat may acquire vested rights and not be subject to future ordinance amendments (Attachment D).

    Phasing/clustering would require ordinance amendments of other provisions: Agricultural/Forestal Districts (phasing/clustering would be more restrictive), road standards, and family divisions.


Family Divisions:   Abuses of current family division regulations have not been identified; however, the County does not have a monitoring program in place. As family divisions have been recommended for exemption from both phasing and clustering ordinances, the Commission believed that these exemptions could lead to future abuses.   Therefore, the majority of the Commission recommended that the ownership of family divisions be extended from the current requirement of ownership of two years after the family division takes place to five years before subdivision and five years after the subdivision.  Prince William County requires ownership five years before the family division (all) and five years following (for lots 10-acres or greater).  Other Virginia counties require family ownership only after the subdivision occurs (see Attachment A - last page).



Public Input Process: 

The Commission agreed on a review process that contains levels or stages to provide early opportunities for public input on the framework, before the formation of an ordinance.  The process also includes two opportunities for public comment on the framework for phasing and clustering combined and for family division provisions before it is transmitted to the Board. 


    provide an opportunity for the Board to comment on the framework recommendations (April 12)

    conduct two Commission public input work sessions

    advise staff of changes to make

    County Attorney drafts ordinances

    conduct a Commission public hearing and direct any necessary changes

    review final draft at a public hearing

    ordinances transmitted to the Board


The following timeline is staff's best assessment for the review process.  The timeframes are subject to changes should the Planning Commission or County Board determine additional meetings are warranted during the process.



Remaining work: 

In considering the Planning Commissionís recommendation, staff believes it is important to note this is only a framework and significant issues still need to be resolved before an ordinance amendment is brought before the Planning Commission and Board.  The following are a few examples of those issues:

         No other county in Virginia has attempted to combine phasing and clustering in this way.  There are numerous complications with this approach that still must be resolved.  For example, does the applicant provide the infrastructure for the entire subdivision with the initial phase?  If so, the project could be financially impossible to build, as the revenue from lots that will be created 10 to 20 years in the future is needed to pay for the improvements.  If not, then the County could potentially have substandard roads in the future that VDOT will not be willing to accept for State maintenance. 

         As described in Attachment D, phasing could potentially vest preliminary plats for very long periods of time.  If the ordinance prohibits the property owner from developing more than two lots every ten years, does the vested preliminary plat effectively give them the ability to develop those remaining lots at any time in the future?  If there was a future interest in stronger measures to limit development in the Rural Areas, that effort could be weakened by a large number of phased preliminary plats that can sit for decades without creating all of the lots.  

         Would the ordinance provide some relief for hardships?  For example, could an estate create 4 lots for the heirs all

         at the same time rather than only allow 2 lots within 10 years?    

         How can family divisions be mixed into subdivisions?  For example, the framework calls for lots to be no more than 2 acres in size, but could we allow a 4 acre lot that could be subdivided in the future for a family division?  If so, is that family division exempted or counted as one of the two lots every ten years? 

         The ordinance will need to establish clearly delineated standards that staff will be able to apply in ministerial reviews. 

Staff raises these issues to make the Board aware there is still considerable work before the ordinance language can be finalized and those issues can impact the effectiveness of the ordinance.  



Property Value:

Staff has not determined how implementation of the proposed ordinance provisions will affect property values and finds this a very complex analysis.  To illustrate that complexity, phasing is intended to slow potential lot creation, possibly making rural area lots scarcer and more valuable, increasing their valuation. On the other hand, phasing potentially decreases the value of undeveloped land as it becomes more difficult and time consuming to realize the economic benefit of creating rural area lots, decreasing its valuation.  Similarly, clustering could significantly reduce land development costs, but the lots created in cluster development may not be perceived as valuable as larger rural area lots which provide more privacy and room for rural area amenities, such as enough land to keep horses on the property.  Finally, it should be recognized the County has little data that explains the motivations of people buying new houses in the rural area versus elsewhere.  Putting all of these factors together, staff has found it very difficult to definitively say how phasing and clustering will affect property values.


Applicant Costs:

These changes will result in additional requirements for property owners seeking to subdivide their property.  Plans are anticipated to be considerably more complex to prepare and, given that complexity, more revisions to plans are anticipated, especially as related to the cluster provisions.  Staff does not believe those costs can be accurately quantified until the ordinance specifics are drafted.   At that point, working in cooperation with potential applicants, staff intends to develop estimates of the additional costs for consideration with the ordinance amendment.  


County Costs:

Both phasing and clustering are anticipated to require additional staff resources for review of applications and monitoring of phasing. Clustering is anticipated to require significant environmental expertise to assist in the determination of the appropriate location of clusters, which translates into additional training and more staff time spent on each application. The extent of these additional resource requirements would be established once the ordinance language is finalized.  For the Countyís review of subdivisions, either additional fees or general fund revenues will be needed to fund the additional resources required for the subdivision reviews.   If this is funded by additional fees, that should be combined with the other cost increases for applicants.



The Planning Commission has recommended that the Board accept the framework for ordinance development (Attachment C) and the public input process as described in this report.  Staff is prepared to implement the outlined process if the County Board finds this ordinance framework acceptable.  



A    September 14, 2005, Executive Summary

B    Planning Commission Minutes for October 18, 2005

C    Planning Commission Recommendations for Phasing, Clustering, Family Divisions Framework Plan

D    Phased Cluster Subdivisions: Vested Rights

View February 28, 2006 PC minutes

View March 14, 2006 PC minutes

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