James City is expected to keep growing; county wrestles with how to manage it all

Staff writer

There’s no question that James City County will continue to grow. The question is, how will that growth be accommodated?

And the answer lies, at least in part, with the county’s comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan, a roadmap for development and growth until 2035, was adopted in 2015 and gets reviewed every five years. The start of the latest two-year review kicks off this year. In April, a public survey will launch to gather residents’ thoughts on land use and other subjects.

“A locality’s comprehensive plan provides a valuable way for a community to coalesce and articulate its vision for future development,” James City Principal Planner Tammy Rosario said. “Through careful analysis and public deliberation, it plans for the current and future population's needs while protecting resources, strengthening the economy and preserving community character.”

The James City County resident of 2040 may be one of as many as 110,044 people who call the county home, according to a projection by the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia.

At the time of the 2010 census, the county population was pegged at 67,383. In July 2017, the county’s population was estimated at 75,524, according to census data.

That’s an anticipated population increase of about 46 percent from 2017 to 2040.

“We’re consistently among the fastest growing localities in Virginia,” Rosario said. She added that the reason behind that growth, at least anecdotally, could be the county’s location between Hampton Roads and Richmond, as well as the allure of the area’s school system.

But regardless of why they move to James City, those who come will need homes to live in and schools to send their children to. And as more development is created, another question — how to maintain the county’s rural character — comes to the forefront. Officials say the best way to stay ahead of growth is to plan for it.

“While James City County’s vision has remained relatively steady between plan review cycles, the background picture and/or outlook for specific areas such as transportation and land use have often shifted enough in a fast-growing locality like ours to make doing an update helpful,” Rosario said. “Localities cannot stop growth, but are rather obligated to anticipate and accommodate it.”

Development on the rise

Construction of new dwelling units has been steady in the past several years, and there’s plenty of room to grow in the county’s subdivisions, particularly in the northwest.

From 2014 to 2018, the number of dwelling units in James City rose from 31,724 to 33,749, according to the 2018 annual Planning Commission report:

  • 381 units built in 2014
  • 636 units built in 2015
  • 459 units built in 2016
  • 482 units built in 2017
  • 448 units built in 2018

The county had about 40 residential subdivisions as of January 2019. Many in the south portion of the county are between 75-100 percent built out in places such as Governor’s Land, which has 734 approved units and Kingsmill, which has an estimated 2,400 approved units.

Approved unit numbers refer to units that have been approved for construction but aren’t necessarily built yet.

There tends to be more room to grow as one travels north in the county. In the county’s center, major subdivisions Ford’s Colony (approved for 3,846 units) and Colonial Heritage (approved for 2,000 units) are all within the 51 to 75 percent built-out category, according to the report.

In the west, Summerplace (164 units) and Westport (102 units) are 25 percent or less built out. Liberty Ridge (133 units) is 26-50 percent built out. Though individually small, collectively they represent 399 approved units. Stonehouse has 4,411 approved units. It stands to one day become the county’s largest subdivision — it’s also among those neighborhoods that are 25 percent or less built out.

The data set doesn’t account for an affordable housing project that could pop up in the future. And the data doesn’t suggest how quickly subdivisions will fill up, but the locations of subdivisions with room to grow are a clue to where growth could be headed.

“It’s important to remember those are assumptions. Once the initial public decision to approve the units is completed, it’s the market’s decision as to when, where and how quickly those units get built,” Rosario said.

Land preservation

In January, the Planning Commission’s policy committee met and discussed its comprehensive plan review priorities. High on the list are land preservation tools, according to meeting materials.

During a retreat that month, the Board of Supervisors expressed interest in replenishing the coffers of land-preservation programs that had funding cut during the Great Recession.

The county uses Purchase of Development Rights, Greenspace Fund and Agricultural and Forestal District programs to maintain rural lands in the county.

The Purchase of Development Rights program was created in November 2001, and the board provided it with $1 million in seed money in fiscal year 2002. The board created the Greenspace Fund in April 1996, and in the fiscal year 1997 budget there was $300,000 earmarked for the program.

Landowners keep their land but sell the rights to develop the land to the county or a conservation organization in the Purchase of Development Rights program. The county buys land to preserve it as part of the Greenspace program.

Renewed funding for these programs could be a topic of discussion as part of the upcoming budget and would provide more robust tools for the county in preserving rural spaces.

At that January meeting, Supervisor John McGlennon urged a brisk revitalization of the programs to preserve rural lands.

“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.

The Purchase of Development Rights program has 12 agreements in place that applied to about 730 acres in places such as Forge Road, Rochambeau Drive and Bush Neck. The Greenspace program has 27 agreements that total 1,333 acres. Lands in that program include property at Mainland Farm and Chickahominy Riverfront Park, according to a staff presentation given to supervisors in June.

Another tool to help manage growth is the Primary Service Area. The PSA is a region of the county earmarked for development because the land within it either has access to or is expected to have access to utilities in the next 20 years.

“By directing growth into the area that is most appropriate for development, we try to minimize the pressure to develop in our rural areas,” Rosario said.

But the PSA isn’t set in stone. As part of the comprehensive plan, there’s a review of the boundary as it relates to the county’s resources and development potential, so it could expand or contract based on how those actions would affect infrastructure needs, community character and finances, Rosario said.

The PSA was last expanded by 141 acres in 2017 when the supervisors approved a land-use application for the Taylor farm property in Anderson’s Corner, Rosario said.

The review of the comprehensive plan by staff and consultants will get underway later this year.

“The county is just now gearing up to get the comprehensive plan review process going for the next cycle. Reviews of the PSA … are a component of the comprehensive plan directly connected to the growth of the county,” Planning Commission member Danny Schmidt said in an email.

School enrollment

In 2019, five of nine Williamsburg-James City County Schools’ elementary schools are at or above 100 percent capacity, according to a district projection dated December 2018. By 2028, all but two of the elementary schools are expected to be at or above 100 percent capacity. Elementary school enrollment is expected to be 37 students over capacity in 2028.

Fall enrollment numbers projected by the district are roughly the same as the fall enrollment figures reported to the State Department of Education. There are discrepancies in the elementary school projections, which school district spokeswoman Eileen Cox chalked up to the fact that they don’t include some student populations, such as pre-kindergarten and part-time students.

The middle and high schools fare better — only Jamestown High School is expected to be at or above 100 percent capacity by 2028; in fact, Jamestown is already there in 2019, according to the projection.

In December, the School Board approved a capital improvement plan that included a new elementary school. A location for the school hasn’t been proposed, Cox said in an email. Williamsburg and James City haven’t decided whether to fund the construction of the new school.

Overall capacity at the district’s schools is expected to be at more than 98 percent by 2028. Ideally, capacity should be 85 percent, with discussions about space needs starting when capacity reaches 90 percent. The district has a long-range planning committee — consisting of members from the division, Williamsburg and James City County governments, among others — that reviews current and anticipated space needs and provides potential ways to address issues to the district superintendent, Cox said.

In the high schools, expansions and renovations are planned as part of the capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2020 to 2029. At Jamestown, improvements would consist of eight classrooms and a renovation to an existing cafeteria. Lafayette High School would get eight new classrooms, and Warhill High School would get 12 new classrooms and an auxiliary gym, Cox said.

The design and construction of each project would take two to three years. All three projects are anticipated to total $27.2 million. The projects at Jamestown and Lafayette high schools would accommodate 200 students, while the Warhill project would accommodate 300 students, Cox said. When those projects are completed, capacity at Warhill is expected to be 79 percent, capacity at Jamestown is expected to be 91 percent and capacity at Lafayette is expected to be 73 percent

Warhill opened in 2007 and cost $50.9 million to build, according to department of education cost data.

Looking forward

This spring, the county takes its first major step in the review process for the comprehensive plan: the citizen survey.

Alongside questions about recreational amenities, the library and employment, there are a number of questions about rural character, what kinds of development residents want to see and feelings on the rate of growth in the county, according to a proposed survey shared with supervisors in February.

The survey is expected to be mailed to 3,000 households on Monday.

The goal is to receive responses from about 700 people. The results are expected to be presented to supervisors in June, said Thomas Guterbock, director of the center for survey research at the Weldon Cooper Center, at a Board of Supervisors work session in February. The center developed the survey.

The survey is a critical part of the review because it allows county staff to further pursue additional citizen engagement and serves as a reference point for policy, Rosario said.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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