Counting up the other green stuff

Rappahannock County has always placed a high value on its natural resources, but now there’s a movement afoot to figure out just how rich it really is.

Photo by Stephen Dareing

With training and encouragement from the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission (RRRC), and the support and blessings of County Administrator John W. McCarthy, the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) is launching an initiative to do an inventory of the county’s green infrastructure.

“We certainly have a handle on our gray infrastructure,” says RRRC regional planner Dierdre Clark. “We know where the roads are, the sewer lines, the telephone lines, and so on. And, that gives us a framework within which to guide certain activities. A balance to that would be, where is our green infrastructure? Where are the things that support the natural and cultural community? That provides an additional framework for opportunities and constraints.”

While green infrastructure is a new term to most people, the concept behind it certainly isn’t. Formal planning in this regard has been a growing national trend for years, and state agencies have been using such documents themselves, and encouraging regions and municipalities to do so as well, for at least a decade.

“What a lot of communities have done is to go through and look at what they have, everything from riparian areas to working farmland to historic properties,” says Clark. “The benefit of that is the ability to plan around what the residents of the county value.

“If you identify an area that’s a critical habitat, or an endangered species, or a park or wetland that the community really values, you can say that the next time you get an application for development, you might want to look at this location rather than that one,” Clark continues. “Would you want a subdivision that was right up against the national park, or would you want to create a buffer?”

RLEP members attended an RRRC-sponsored workshop on the topic, moderated by McCarthy, back in September. Since then they’ve been seeking out more training, and have initiated informal discussions with county leaders about what elements might be most helpful to include in an inventory tailored to Rappahannock’s specific needs.

“There are different definitions of green infrastructure,” says RLEP board member Marshall Jones, one of the initiative’s organizers. “They all relate, but they’re tweaked in different ways. We want to study all those things, and then eventually talk to planners and ask them what they think would be most useful for their needs.”

Jones characterizes the group’s efforts as a free gift to the county, to be used in whatever way it finds appropriate.

“Assessment of green infrastructure can be really helpful in planning, so you know what’s out there,” says Jones. “It’s just a way to organize the data, and then to make it available for whatever purpose. The comprehensive plan is one possibility, and we think it might be useful, but we’re not presuming that yet. And, we need to talk to planners and others, and see what they think.”

“Its utility depends very much on what the work product finally is,” says McCarthy. “But obviously, our planning and zoning policies, and our land use vision for the future, involve the preservation of a substantial amount of open space. So, I think it will be very useful.”

The upcoming revision of the county’s comprehensive plan is one obvious purpose for the document, says McCarthy. Reviewed at least once every five years, the plan tends to get major revisions soon after a new round of federal census data is available. The latest information will be available late this year — roughly around the time RLEP’s green infrastructure inventory is likely to be completed.

“The effort is very early on the local level, but the broad brush of establishing what our green infrastructure is, and how to document it, is definitely something that I think is needed for the comprehensive plan,” says McCarthy.

Another likely use, says the county administrator, is as an additional tool for the county Planning Commission’s ongoing efforts. He broached the issue at the commission’s most recent meeting, and it will be topic of discussion over the coming months. “The term green infrastructure was new to them, but the broad-brush outline I gave was enough to whet their interest,” McCarthy says.

And, while he’s careful to point out that the document won’t have any regulatory effects, one additional possible benefit to county landowners is that if a unique natural resource is identified on their land, its inclusion in the inventory might help pave the way towards grants or loans to help preserve that resource for future generations.

No matter what its usefulness to Rappahannock, says McCarthy, the effort makes the most sense if it’s integrated with similar programs in surrounding counties.

“As small as Rappahannock County is geographically, there’s no way you can define some critical resource that we can actually get our hands around,” McCarthy says. “All the rivers go to somewhere else, and all of these resources extend over political boundaries.

“So, this makes the most sense if it’s in a broader regional context,” he continues. “I hope that Culpeper and Fauquier, and our other adjacent counties pursue this as well, so we can have a credible and creditable evaluation of the resources that we all share.”

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