James City wrestles with development in upper county

jojacobs@vagazette.com

The times, they are a-changin’ in James City County.

Perhaps the passage of time is most dramatic in the upper county, where historic farmland has been giving way to development in recent decades.

In 1940, there were 326 farms in the county. By 2012, that figure had dropped to 83. James City had 44,306 acres of farmland in 1940. That had dwindled to 5,544 acres in 2012, according to the Virginia Census of Agriculture.

And as farmland faded out, people moved in. James City had an estimated population of 74,404 in 2016. In 1940, the county’s population was 4,907, according to census data.

It’s a tricky balance between paying fealty to the county’s rural roots, adapting to a changing economy and providing services and homes for a growing population. If the community does not plan and discuss development thoroughly, today’s farmland could inadvertently become tomorrow’s retail superstore or office park.

“At first, ‘well it’s just one store.’ Well, it’s death by a thousand cuts. All of the sudden you get this one and this one and this one and next thing you know people don’t want to be in that area because of the way it’s changed,” said James City Supervisor Michael Hipple, who represents the Powhatan District, which includes parts of the county’s rural areas.

The challenge of development

If it’s a permitted use based on a property’s zoning, businesses can set up with little oversight from supervisors or residents. So if the county doesn’t establish and stick to a development plan, rural areas can transform in unexpected ways, Hipple said.

The county’s 2035 Strategic Plan makes preservation of rural areas a priority and it’s a guiding document for the board on development issues. Early and frequent communication with a community that has a proposed development on the horizon also is key to responsible development, Hipple said.

Once a primarily agricultural locality, James City has seen a shift toward retail, industry and tourism since the 1970s. The trend toward development began in the lower part of the county with developments such as the Anheuser-Busch brewery and has since crept north, Planning Director Paul Holt said.

What to do with undeveloped land has been a common agenda item at county government meetings in recent months.

Supervisors approved a solar farm in Norge in January. The 35-megawatt facility gives 225 acres of former farmland some productive use, and the project is also flexible: after the solar farm’s lease, the land would be in a good position to revert to farmland, since its easier to dismantle a solar farm than a subdivision, Hipple said.

In August, supervisors OK’d a zoning amendment to allow rural landowners to host events of up to 300 people as an income-generating venture.

Local wedding planner Jess Aiken pushed for the zoning change to open up space for wedding venues, which are lacking in the county.

“Folks have a very hard time finding a venue,” Aiken told the planning commission in October 2016.

Relaxing zoning to allow event venues would be a economic boost to the county, opening up tax revenue and business opportunities, Aiken said.

On Wednesday, the planning commission considered but ultimately delayed a vote on an application for an apartment complex to be built on land zoned for agriculture near Norge.

They’re the latest episodes in a decades-long story of development, one that has met resistance from citizens’ groups such as the Friends of Forge Road and Toano.

The group, which advocates for the preservation of rural land in the county, got its start 15 years ago in part because upper James City residents felt left out of decisions being made farther south, president Linda Rice said.

“Maybe we should have a group to remind the Board of Supervisors that this is a very special place,” Rice said about the reason for the group’s creation.

The group is also interested in conserving the history of the area, which was an early location of English colonization after the establishment of Jamestown in the early 1600s, said Fred Boelt, a member of the group.

Rice lobbied against the zoning amendment, but she called the solar farm a decent compromise that does not affect the area’s rural character as much as other developments could.

Preserving a traditional landscape

Rice isn’t alone in her concern for the county’s rural character.

About 78 percent of respondents to a 2014 resident survey agreed it is more important to preserve farmland in the county than to have more development.

Residents’ opinions are a key component to the county’s comprehensive plan, which is the stepping-off point for staff as they consider how to develop the county and keep pace with the growing population, Holt said.

About 67 percent of the 2014 survey’s 606 respondents rated the county’s efforts to preserve natural environment favorably.

“Here in James City County, we have a very long and established history of doing as much community outreach as possible,” Holt said.

The county’s land-use map makes a distinction between rural land and undeveloped land elsewhere, though both may be zoned for agricultural use and have a rural appearance. The former is less open to development as a conservation measure than the latter and exists outside the county’s primary service area, a north-south piece of land in the county’s center with better access to services and utilities, Holt said.

Rural land as a county designation exists chiefly along the county’s west and in the area around York River State Park. The solar farm and proposed apartment complex in Norge are both in the primary service area, principal planner Tammy Rosario said.

Rice, who has lived in the area for 40 years, said that while it has not always been the case, in recent years the Board of Supervisors has been more attentive to upper county residents’ concerns.

The future of farmland

If there is a future for agriculture in James City, farmers and the wider community will have to adapt by developing agritourism experiences and new farming models, Hipple said.

Hipple points to horse barns — several of which operate on Forge Road and provide horse-riding lessons or other services — as a good business model for the county’s rural areas. Such businesses tap into a growing interest in agritourism while preserving the look and feel of a rural community.

“It’s a lot of farms. It’s a lot of horse farms down there. And they teach and they show and they work well together. It fits the rural character down there,” Hipple said.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension surveyed 240 agritourism operations in 2013 and found 70 percent reported an increase in visitors between 2008 and 2013.

Some wineries and pick-your-own crop operations also are considered agritourism ventures.

Farms could also explore co-op models to decrease costs and continue to operate by attracting residents willing to work. Hipple suggested a group of people could organize with a farmer to pick crops or otherwise assist the farm’s operation, perhaps by manning a stand at a farmer’s market, in exchange for a share of the harvest.

There are not any county farms that utilize that model, but if a group of motivated residents and farmers organized, they could likely make a successful go of it, Hipple said.

Rice echoed the potential in agritourism, saying horse barns and outdoor activities such as cycling can compliment rural areas in such a way that is both economically useful and preserves rural character.

“It's probably the last enclave of a rural setting in the county,” Rice said of the Forge Road area. “This really is like a little jewel.”

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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