Rural character is often seen as a defining feature of James City County. It’s almost as frequently seen as a feature under attack as the county wrestles with development and growth.
The Board of Supervisors appears poised to give rural lands a stronger shield when it expressed interest in revamping and funding existing land preservation programs at a retreat Tuesday.
Though no formal decisions were made, staff will draft documents detailing goals and priorities for land preservation as a first step to re-energize the tools — which consist of Purchase of Development Rights, Greenspace Fund and Agricultural and Forestal Districts programs — by the summer. Funding for the programs could be decided as part of the upcoming budget.
Both the Purchase of Development Rights and Greenspace Fund saw their funding cut due to belt-tightening brought on by the Great Recession. Once the programs have their game plans in order, the county could look into how to fund the programs, Assistant County Administrator Jason Purse said.
The anticipated move to re-energize land preservation tools would add another factor to James City’s decades-old debate regarding development and population growth, as the historically agricultural locality has in recent years seen an increase in both at the expense of the rural character many people see as an integral part of James City’s identity.
Growth and development
The latest battle in that ongoing conflict is the proposed Oakland Pointe apartment complex, which would bring 126 affordable housing apartments to the Norge area. Critics of the project have said the apartments’ construction would threaten the area’s rural character. The supervisors are scheduled to consider the application that would pave the way to construction in February.
The county had 44,306 acres of farmland in 1940. Farmland had dwindled to 5,544 acres in 2012, according to the Virginia Census of Agriculture.
In 1940, the county had an estimated population of just less than 5,000. In 2017, the county’s estimated population was 75,524, according to census data.
Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a 2014 survey agreed it is more important to preserve farmland in the county than to have more development.
The county created the Purchase of Development Rights program in November 2001, and funded it with $1 million in seed money in fiscal year 2002. The Greenspace Fund was established in April 1996, and $300,000 was included in the fiscal year 1997 budget for the program, and the fund represented one cent of the real estate rate in the fiscal year 1998 budget. Both programs’ funding got the ax in response to the Great Recession.
Though essentially the same in purpose, the programs differ in process.
In the Purchase of Development Rights program, landowners keep their land but sell development rights to the county or a conservation organization. In the Greenspace program, the county buys the land, Purse said.
The former has a little more than $365,000 in its bank account. The latter doesn’t have dedicated funding, but the county puts away $1.3 million annually for land purchases or capital needs that can be dipped into for the program, Purse said.
The Purchase of Development Rights program has a volunteer committee that reviews applications, and as such is a slower process than the Greenspace program, which doesn’t have the same formalized structure, Purse said.
The Purchase of Development Rights program has 12 agreements of about 730 acres, with lands on Forge Road, Rochambeau Drive and Bush Neck. The Greenspace program has 27 agreements of about 1,333 acres. Those acres include property at Mainland Farm and Chickahominy Riverfront Park, according to a presentation given by staff to the supervisors in June.
The county also has the Agricultural and Forestal Districts program, in which the county exchanges tax relief on property in exchange for a guarantee that the owner won’t develop the land for a specific period, usually four to eight years, Purse said.
It’s up to the board to determine how to fund the Purchase of Development Rights and Greenspaces programs. But the board seemed generally interested in providing money for them.
“I think the PDR served us well when it was moved forward,” Supervisor Michael Hipple said. “I think we’re at the point now where our finances are in better shape.”
He floated the idea of using some part of the county’s share of the tax revenue created by Senate Bill 942. The legislation, approved and put into law in 2018, created a 1-percent increase to sales tax and redirected the $2 transient occupancy tax to the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance’s Tourism Council to market the region to overnight tourists. The total collected tax revenue is split 50-50 between the Tourism Council and the Historic Triangle localities — Williamsburg, James City and York — based on where the taxes were collected.
Supervisor John McGlennon stressed that it’s important for the county to pull its programs together quickly.
“I feel a sense of urgency that we have pressures for development still on some critical land we really ought to think about preserving,” McGlennon said.
McGlennon suggested borrowing money, noting voters approved by referendum a $20 million bond for the Purchase of Development Rights program as part of the fiscal year 2007-08 budget.
Supervisor Jim Icenhour wanted the county to be proactive about determining which lands it wanted to preserve and to approach those property owners, rather than wait for a property owner to approach the county as it does now.
“We need to change our focus a little bit,” he said.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, firstname.lastname@example.org, @jajacobs_