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March 2, 2021 · OPINION

Town plan chases housing, ignores tough questions

File Photo/Lawrence Emerson
The town council will conduct a public hearing on Warrenton’s draft comprehensive plan at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 9.
By Julie Bolthouse
Piedmont Environmental Council

The Piedmont Environmental Council has built its trusted reputation, in part, based on almost 50 years of advocacy not only for land conservation, but also for smart, thoughtful growth and development in areas planned for growth and development.

We also have a long-standing practice of pushing for government decisions that are transparent to the public and based on data that support such decisions. Part of our charge, and a responsibility we take seriously, is to monitor and review town planning processes and comprehensive plans with an eye towards preserving the character and quality of the towns we live in, while also protecting its natural resources and enhancing local resident’s quality of life.

For many months now, PEC has followed the development and roll-out of the Town of Warrenton’s Comprehensive Plan for land development through 2040, reviewing multiple drafts and associated data. Last summer, we urged the town to slow down its rushed process, to initiate sufficient outreach to community members about the plan, and to give the public time to understand it and participate in the process. We highlighted specific concerns tied to the emphasis on recruiting residential growth, the lack of planning to tackle affordable housing needs, the inclusion of a new western bypass and missing information on water and wastewater needs, among others.

Last fall, we were heartened when the town hit the “pause” button. However, it’s now clear that the planning commission focused on the length and complexity of the document, not issues raised related to the substance. After forming a subcommittee to “streamline” the plan, they released an updated plan in January, which rearranged the content into easier-to-digest sections accessed by hyperlinks. While shorter, and perhaps a bit clearer, the substance and direction remains virtually unchanged.

The draft plan continues to outline a growth trajectory for Warrenton which emphasizes recruitment of new residential development (well beyond any projected need) in areas once planned for commercial and industrial uses. This plan charts a new course, focusing on attracting residential development in the hopes that economic growth will follow. The town is planning for a rate of growth several times higher than what has occurred over the past decade in Warrenton or Fauquier County more broadly. We are concerned this approach will have detrimental effects on the town’s tax base and its ability to meet infrastructure needs, making it even harder to provide the quality-of-life amenities that residents desire, such as parks, sidewalks, transportation improvements, connectivity, shopping and dining, recreational activities, etc.

The housing market is strong in our area, even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic. If approved, the plan would make Warrenton a target for speculative commuter housing. Troublingly, this seems to be the goal.

According to the draft plan, the jobs-to-housing ratio within Warrenton is too high. In other words, there are too many jobs and not enough houses. Proponents of the plan point to traffic congestion during morning and afternoon rush hours, as one sign of this imbalance. However, we contend this figure is taken out of context and inappropriately applied to Warrenton. Unlike major cities or the District of Columbia, Warrenton is the county seat of a rural community and provides nearby employment opportunities for Fauquier residents in addition to Warrenton residents. We would argue that what Warrenton is missing is the right mix of housing opportunities, along with the amenities that its residents desire and deserve.

When it comes to housing, we believe the town has not focused enough on retaining and encouraging affordable housing — a critical need in Warrenton, especially given that many of the employment opportunities are lower-income retail and food-service positions. Market-rate housing will come on its own because there is profit to be made in building it, but affordable housing must be intentionally sought and planned. Affordable housing can be addressed through such targeted means as limits on lot and housing sizes, flexibility of lot configurations, provisions allowing duplexes in existing single-family neighborhoods, low- and no-interest loan programs for home repair or improvements, and infrastructure investment in older neighborhoods such as those residents of Oliver City have asked for. Unfortunately, the town’s plan fails to propose these strategies, instead focusing on density bonuses for developers who include a small percentage of affordable housing in their market-rate development.

We believe this plan would artificially increase the growth by recruiting new residents from such surrounding areas as Loudoun and Prince William counties. Rather than reduce traffic congestion and improve quality of life for Warrenton residents, the plan as proposed would more likely convert Warrenton into a bedroom community for affluent folks looking for lower-priced homes here, while maintaining their jobs in Northern Virginia and D.C. — increasing, rather than decreasing, commuter traffic.

We ask: What is the impact of a plan that pushes for so much residential development? Already, the recently adopted Capital Improvement Plan calls for raising the Warrenton Reservoir by up to 5 feet in order to reserve an additional 50 million to 80 million gallons of water. The Warrenton 2040 plan includes a new western bypass, that will include Timberfence Parkway and Southern Parkway, built through existing neighborhoods, stream corridors, a conservation easement and historic resources.

And importantly, the plan calls for a conversion of most existing commercial and industrial zoning in town to mixed-use zoning. The problem with preemptively rezoning everything to mixed-use zoning is that the town would forego any proffers from the developers to mitigate impacts of development. Proffers are a voluntary commitment (cash or improvement) from a developer to reduce or eliminate the impact of new development on neighboring properties and the county. They are important to small towns as they provide necessary improvements or the money needed to offset impacts on schools, transportation, parks, public safety, and other infrastructure to support the additional population. Instead, these costs will fall to current and new taxpayers.

The population in Fauquier will grow, definitely, and development to accommodate that growth should occur in Warrenton, certainly. But the question for Warrenton residents and planners is: Do we want a plan that focuses on recruiting residential development? Or, do we want a plan that focuses on providing the missing elements of a successful town?

The plan should prioritize investments in our existing neighborhoods, fixing and enhancing the downtown and larger commercial district (both redevelopment and infill), meeting our housing needs (including affordable units) and providing the amenities that Warrenton residents desire.

If you, like us, believe the Town of Warrenton should focus on bettering the town for existing and future residents with an eye toward maintaining a healthy live-work balance, we ask you to join us in submitting comments to the Warrenton Town Council or speaking at the public hearing on March 9, urging the council to redraft the plan with this focus in mind.

The writer is PEC’s field representative for Fauquier County. The organization’s detailed March 2 letter to the town council follows.

PEC Warrenton Comp Plan Let... by Fauquier Now

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bb123321 · March 9, 2021 at 10:48 am
We need smart growth solutions in Fauquier County - not urban sprawl that paves over our beautiful land and soil. More development means more pollution, more runoff, more pesticides, and fewer areas for wildlife to thrive. I'm tired of developers bribing county councils to get land re-zoned. Look at Europe - you can't just build anywhere there. Development is strictly controlled and that improves the quality of life. Let's get serious about limiting development and channeling it to certain areas with high density. By doing so, we can protect open space.
Sammy · March 4, 2021 at 5:06 pm
agreed, let's let the free enterprise system work instead of continuing to fund central planning and land rights acquisition with taxpayer funds .. isn't the craziest part of this opinion piece that it is our govt committee getting lobbied by another committee we fund for easements to decide what we can do with our own land?

LeeSherbeyn is correct, we should all prefer free enterprise to committees doing our planning for us .. if this is how America was built, let's have more of that -- or are we forgetting most of this is in the name of not building anything at all by choking the free market and competing against it with taxpayer funds to purchase easements for PEC (the same organization the writer of this piece represents)
LeeSherbeyn · March 4, 2021 at 4:39 pm
It has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat. It is America and America was built on the free enterprise system.
Sammy · March 4, 2021 at 12:24 pm
answers are not difficult if you read the Republican Party of Virginia's creed:

"That the free enterprise system is the most productive supplier of human needs and economic justice"

Ms. Bolthouse, you are not a Virginia Republican nor do you or your council represent their interests when you advocate govt central planning through zoning or the purchase of easements with taxpayer funds

leave it to the market, say Republicans .. aren't they in charge here? shouldn't land owners control their land? who better?

govt central committee planning has already taken more than a quarter of this county's land -- give it back and return the money to taxpayers .. it's the Republican thing to do (or change the creed)
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