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Cluster Ordinance, Downzoning and why developers are losing their minds

March 1, 2018

The Planning Commission will be taking comments from the public regarding the potential repeal of the county cluster ordinance tonight.  My guess is the vast majority of folks reading this, and you are a group more involved than most,  have never seen or been to a PC meeting.  The PC better buckle up because there will likely be a full house in their chambers because this issue is a doozy and people are angry.

 

You know what though, I should clarify... by people, I mean developers and those who stand to lose money if any changes are made to the current cluster ordinance.  They are people, right, albeit people who don't live here and have no investment in our community.  Not one but two anonymous websites have popped up spreading propaganda about how disastrous the potential changes could be to scare Stafford residents into thinking that their property values will go down if the cluster ordinance changes.  Honestly, it makes me sick.  Fortunately, based on a rather robust conversation I saw about the subject on Facebook, most residents are highly skeptical of this nonsense and rightly so.  But what's it all about, anyway and why should you care?  Let's break it down:

 

"Hey Fred, if you look closely, you can actually see the giant vat of money we will be swimming in once we build all the homes this community can't support, see it?"  

"I DO see it, Bob!  I really do!"

 

Cluster Ordinance and it's effects

Stafford County allows "by-right" development, that is development that does not need to be approved by the Board of Supervisors, as long as every home lot has 3 acres or more. Here's a simple example to get us started:

 

Simple By-Right

150 acres / 3 acres per home lot =

50 homes a developer can build with no approval required

 

Easy-peasy, right?   Under the cluster ordinance, a developer can group or "cluster" the homes in a development together on a smaller area of available land.  There should not be an increase in homes built, the homes are just arranged differently.  Under the current ordinance, lots developed in this manner must be on at least 1.5 acres of land instead of 3 acres and the rest of the land, at least 50%, should remain as "open space."  

 

Cluster Development

150 acres / 1.5 acres per home lot =

50 homes built with no approval required on 75 acres and 75 acres preserved land or "open space"

 

To be clear, if a cluster development exceeds 50 homes, then there is an approval process required by the county.  But for our example, it is not required.  There is an obvious benefit of keeping open space but there are other advantages to clustering a community. Namely utilities and roads are focused in a smaller area, which reduces the costs of providing these services when compared to the more simple example above.  Pretty easy so far, but here comes the hiccup...

 

If you own a home, you know that not all land is created equal.  Hills, slopes, areas with bad drainage, wetlands, protected animal habitats and even easements can make an area of land unbuildable. So let's say that on our 150 acres, 30 of those acres are unusable due to the endangered Flama-Scama population whose habitat is on the property:

Simple By-Right

150 acres - 30 acres of Flama-Scama habitat / 3 acres = 

40 homes build on 120 acres with no required approval

 

Under this scenario, a developer loses 10 homes, a lot of potential profit lost due to those pesky Flama-Scamas.  What happens under the cluster ordinance:

Cluster Development

150 acres - 30 acres of Flama-Scama habitat / 1.5 acres =

50 homes built with no approval required on 75 acres and 75 acres preserved land or "open space"

 

Nothing, nothing happens.  The Flama-Scama habitat is just thrown into the "open space" chunk of the development, even though that land was never fit to be developed.  You can see why developers would want this cluster ordinance to remain untouched, it is good for their bottom line.

 

 Pictured: the elusive and adorable Flama-Scama, at least for our purposes

 

Anonymous Website Propaganda

 

Now, the BoS is considering repealing the cluster ordinance for this reason and others but there is a problem.  The state requires us to have a cluster ordinance so any repeal would only be temporary.  The BoS has done this before.  In March of 2012 the BoS repealed the cluster ordinance and replaced it with changes in June of the same year.  At the very least, this type of move is not unprecedented.   

 

There are a few arguments being pushed by these anonymous websites that I would like to address point by point.  They say that repealing the cluster ordinance would:

 

1) "Decrease Property Values" - If you are a large land owner who had planned on selling your property to developers, this may be true.  However, we don't know yet what changes the BoS would propose for the new cluster ordinance so this argument is clearly putting the cart before the horse to scare county residents.  Further, if you live in a neighborhood and aren't sitting on 20 acres or more, your property values will not go down. 

 

FUN FACT:  If the BoS does take measures to reduce the number of homes that can be built in the county, you could see an increase to your home's property value down the road.  Simple supply and demand dictates that when you have a high demand and a diminished supply, the price of said items in limited supply increases.  This argument doesn't pass muster, NEXT...

 

2) "Diminishes the supply of affordable housing" - There is an element of truth here, a home built on 1.5 acres of land is less costly to a buyer that one on 3 acres.  I am not sure though that is really what people mean when they use the term "affordable housing."  Of course, if the home itself costs more to build because it is not clustered, then those extra costs will be passed along by the homebuilder.  But if you do a quick search on zillow, you will see that new, single family homes being built in the area that are on less than 3 acres typically sell for 400K-500K.  Not exactly "affordable" for the vast majority of the population, just ask all of the SCPS teachers who can't afford to live here. Plus, can you have it both ways, a reduction in property values but also a decrease in affordable, ie lower valued, properties?  I call BS on this one.

 

3) "Encourage Suburban Sprawl" - This is rich, indeed, if coming from developers.   Be that as it may, again there is some truth to this statement.  Anyone who drives through the county can see that new by-right neighborhoods are popping up all over the place, the very definition of sprawl.  However, one of the reasons the BoS is looking to revise the cluster ordinance is because the "open space" that is supposed to be created by the cluster ordinance is not being felt by the community.  From the county memorandum regarding the repeal:

 

"Board members brought up (at the recent retreat) citizen complaints received about cluster subdivision developments, citing the lack of visual open space in relation to the lots,...and in some instances more lots being created than would be allowed by under conventional subdivision development regulations. There was an expressed community perception of overcrowded developments and the loss of the rural character in the rural areas of the County."

 

Meaning, the perception is that our current cluster ordinance is not helping with sprawl OR preserving "open space" as it is intended.

 

4) "Discourage businesses from operating here" - In order for this one to work, you have to have bought all the previously listed issues.  The idea is that employees who could work for new potential businesses would not be able to afford to live here due to the drastic increase of home costs, so businesses would go elsewhere.  This argument is tenuous, you have to believe that any change to the cluster ordinance would cause homebuilding costs to skyrocket or that there are not enough potential employees already in the area and I have not boarded that train.  

 

5) "Exposes the county to liability"- Again, this goes back to the illegality of repealing the ordinance.  I would like to point out that the develop...sorry, "people,"  who have posted this website are saying the county can not repeal the ordinance without immediately replacing it.  However, they are staunchly against replacing it at all, based on the above assertions.  Soooooo, basically we have to keep what we have and never speak of such things again?  How is that smart, don't we want our BoS to be examining and discussing just these types of things?  I am pretty sure that is actually what a supervisor's job is, it is what we elected them to do.  But these anonymous forces have started a huge campaign to shut down even the discussion of changing the cluster ordinance.  Makes you think...

Also thought provoking

 

Downzoning

 

All the current bruhaha revolves only around the cluster ordinance, regardless of the reference to downzoning being made by some of our anonymous propaganda slingers.  No one on the BoS has even mentioned the concept of downzoning...yet.  If you think developers are all up in the county's business now, wait until they bring up downzoning.  Of course, there is no guarantee that the BoS will recommend it but it would go a very long way towards reducing the influx of new homes to the county.  So, what is it?

 

Let's go back to our simple "by-right" example from above with a small change:

Simple By-Right 

150 acres / 3 acres per home lot =

50 homes a developer can build with no approval required

 

Simple By-Right (with a side of downzoning, please)

150 acres / 10 acres per home lot =

15 homes a developer can build with no approval required

 

Look-y what we did there!  We reduced the number of homes able to be built without approval by 35!  All we had to do was change the number of acres per home lot allowed.   Simple, right?

 

Of course, it's not simple because not only would developers be upset by this change but large landowners would as well.  Still, I think it is worth discussing as other counties in NVA have done this very thing to control their own growth.  It is drastic but may be just what we need.

 

I will be doing a write up in the PC meeting, look for that soon.  Ultimately, I am not 100% sure what specifically needs to be done with the cluster ordinance but I am certainly glad that our Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors are at least acknowledging that the discussion needs to happen.

 

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