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November 30, 2012

1972 trip to England influenced planning here

File photo/Lawrence Emerson
North and west of Warrenton's Olde Gold Cup and Sliver Cup subdivisions, development stops and farmland begins, creating a "hard edge" similar to land-use patterns in England.
Bob Lee serves as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation executive director and as Marshall District's representative on the Fauquier County Planning Commission. He previously served 15 years as Fauquier's county administrator, coming from the same position in Clarke County.
The British view land as a scarce resource and the citizens accept that the use of land for development should be governed by the interests of the larger community. In the United States, we still exhibit the pioneer attitude, where land is seen as a virtually inexhaustible commodity and government land planning at all levels is still regarded suspiciously by a good many people.
Editor’s note: This is adapted from the writer’s recent speech to the Warrenton Rotary Club.

By G. Robert Lee

I want to look back 40 years ago, when Fauquier and Loudoun County public officials joined with local media representatives and a U.N.C. Institute of Government professor and traveled to England to observe “County Planning: How the English Do It.”

That 1972 trip was sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Association of Counties, and quietly funded primarily by the late Paul Mellon (of Upperville). Regrettably, most of the Fauquier participants are deceased, and none currently holds any public office. After a brief overview of this educational tour to England, which influenced local planning for several decades, I want to examine, very briefly, current planning and practices for land conservation and human settlement patterns here in Fauquier County.

In Great Britain, almost 62 million people live on an island roughly twice the size of Virginia. By comparison, the Virginia population is approximately 8 million. How is it then that England has demonstrably better visual order, more attractive towns, villages and hamlets, better protection of working landscapes, greater conservation of natural and cultural assets and much less urban sprawl than any state in these United States?

Let’s look at a few differences that may help us understand how England ends up with such an attractive and efficient land use pattern. In the U.S., development sprawls into the countryside while in England, the dividing line between urban and rural tends to be clean and sharp. One reason for logical and orderly land development patterns in England is the 1947 British Town and Country Planning Act which places public interest ahead of private gain when considering proposed land development.

Professor Robert E. Stipe from the University of North Carolina was one of the tour leaders. He had studied government systems in Great Britain and he noted that tradition plays a big part in British life. This manifests itself in a strong sense of place and of heritage stewardship. Also, the English people exhibit a widespread and deep seated sense of caring about the form and function of new development. Stipe observed that the British identify strongly with the countryside, with historic buildings, with rural scenery and with their own neighborhoods in a way that Americans usually do not. The result, Professor Stipe wrote, is the absence of sprawl, a tidy development pattern and much greater economy in the provision of public utilities, services, and facilities than Americans enjoy. England exhibits complete communities with a balance of jobs, housing, recreation, services and amenities.

The British view land as a scarce resource and the citizens accept that the use of land for development should be governed by the interests of the larger community.

In the United States, we still exhibit the pioneer attitude, where land is seen as a virtually inexhaustible commodity and government land planning at all levels is still regarded suspiciously by a good many people.

Two Fauquier County supervisors, John B. Adams and Sam Butler, both dairy farmers, returned to Virginia with very different impressions of the English planning program. Mr. Adams liked what he saw and said, “Fauquier County can achieve equally good results – if the people want it.” Sam Butler expressed a somewhat different view saying, “This is a free country. You can’t tell people everything they can do and can’t do without their consent. But we had a fine trip. It was worthwhile. I wish now the fine people we met would come here. They could learn a lot from us.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman James Austin was asked by The Fauquier Democrat if he had been brainwashed and his response was: “Ridiculous! Our hosts were kind and accommodating in the smallest detail. And from what we learned, and considering the problems we’ll be facing over the next four years (now 40 years), we’re bound to be better informed.”

Unlike Virginia, taxation of the land in England does not impose development pressure, because land is not taxed. All property taxation is on structures rather than the underlying land. The value of property for tax purposes is calculated on the amount of rent the structure would bring if it were rented, less the cost of maintaining it. Thus the British property tax is based on income rather than value. Commissioner of Revenue Ross D’Urso and the Board of Assessors often apply a variant of this approach to assess commercial and industrial properties here in Fauquier. Local tax on farmland in Britain therefore is not a negative inducement that leads to more intense uses.

The actual land planning processes in England and in the U.S. are really much the same. Goals and objectives are defined and policies are pronounced in written prescriptions and maps, and implementation is in the form of whatever legal, administrative, regulatory and financial devices are available under existing enabling legislative authorities.

One big difference is the status of the Comprehensive or Master Plan. In virtually all of England, the plan designations are determinative, while in much of the United States, and in Virginia, the Comprehensive Plan is considered an advisory document. In Britain, there is also a close relationship between the public capital infrastructure investment and the adopted Master Plan. Simply put, the Master Plans in England say what they mean and mean what they say. On a level that we might understand, if this were England 95 percent of the population would live on 5 percent of the county land area and there would be public infrastructure in our growth designated service districts.

At the conclusion of the trip, Professor Stipe asked a provocative, and in hindsight maybe a rhetorical question, when he said: “And finally, will those who come to live in Fauquier and Loudoun counties some 20 years hence be able to look back to 1972 and say to themselves – these were the boards that reversed the tide, the men who stopped the drift, who were able to figure out what was needed to protect this area for us – and did something about it.”

Now, fast forward not 20 years but 40 years, and let’s look where we are today. I will not address Loudoun County, but I know a little about what has happened in Fauquier over several decades. Fauquier leads Virginia in terms of saving our natural and cultural heritage landscapes. We have had sliding scale zoning since the early 1980s, and that zoning has resulted in limiting inappropriate and premature residential development in our countryside. Additionally, Fauquier is poised to take the state lead in the number of acres permanently reserved for agricultural uses under its Purchase of Development Rights program. More conservation easement acres have been donated in Fauquier County than any other county in Virginia, and a greater percentage of land in Fauquier will never be subdivided than in any other Virginia community.

We are on the threshold of the perpetual conservation protection of 100,000 rural acres, almost 25 percent of the land area of the county. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the state agency that I have directed for three gubernatorial administrations, has over 70,000 acres in Fauquier County under voluntarily donated perpetual open-space easements. I like to think that if Mr. Mellon were with us today he might say that Fauquier County has done a commendable job in protecting our rural heritage and cultural land resources.

Unfortunately, the human settlement picture is not as bright as the working lands scenario. We have too many properties that are too big to mow and arguably too small to farm. Our human settlement pattern is neither functional nor sustainable in the long term. We do not exhibit a strong balance of jobs, housing, services, recreation and amenities. We fall short both on affordable housing options and efficient densities. We are much too automobile-dependent. We are increasingly a commuter community rather than a complete community.

As the previous Fauquier County administrator for 15 years, I am gratified by our rural land planning. And as Virginia Outdoors Foundation executive director, I am also gratified by Fauquier’s state leadership in voluntary land conservation. Now, as a member of the county planning commission, I hope to make a positive difference going forward in the form and function of our future urban settlement patterns.

Let me close with an observation that the late Nick Arundel made after the 1972 trip to England: “…it is clear that we will have to swallow hard and then square up to one huge change in philosophy – that the rights of all the people, and generations to come, are more important than each man’s right to do whatever he pleases with his own property, without regard for his neighbors. This is rough stuff for Americans to grasp, but if we don’t, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the shambles that will follow.”

The writer lives near Warrenton.
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County · December 5, 2012 at 11:16 pm
Nice to read that someone remembers the beginnings of the Service Districts in Fauquier County.
My husband's parents did not travel to England in 1972, however they had several close friends that did. For months the conversation was of this trip and what was learned in relation to Fauquier. I was an avid listener.
Mead Palmer was instrumental in implementing and advancing the concept of the Service District cause. The reason for these districts: preserve the beauty of the County by creating high density, community areas....Service Districts, with businesses, homes, parks and sidewalks! And in 1972!
Brilliant concept. Then a succession of unknowledgable Supervisiors led by individuals with a lack of vision, other than complete no growth, and we have what we have now, no services in the districts and a mass of "too small to farm and too big to mow". A complete waste! And quite ugly.
So many opportunities have been missed in the County. It's never too late to move forward with solid sensible planning. But, I honestly feel the leadership in Fauquier County has completely missed the larger picture.
Piedmont · December 1, 2012 at 9:04 am
A big thank you to FauquierNow for publishing such an interesting historical and relevant article. It captures where we were 40 years ago, where we are today, and hopefully, will influence where we are going in the future. Thanks to people like Nick Arundel and Bob Lee we can all rethink what we are doing in every aspect of our daily lives that is no longer sustainable in the longer term. Looking forward to other positive comments about this inspiring and educational column. Let the fireworks begin!
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