Affordable housing in Rappahannock — the PEC weighs in

‘I don’t know how you balance people’s vacation homes against people’s need for a place to live’

Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) President Chris Miller says the issue in Rappahannock County with affordable housing isn’t so much “are there enough houses, it’s that so many are second or third homes.” By John McCaslin

Call it what you want: affordable housing, low income housing, inexpensive housing. It’s been referred to by all three names of late in Rappahannock County — and in no uncertain terms.

Could it be, on the other hand, that providing more affordable living accommodations for Rappahannock residents within existing town and village boundaries could, in the long run, actually help preserve the county’s rural character and landscapes that so many take pride in today?

As Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) President Chris Miller argues this week in an interview, the issue in Rappahannock County isn’t so much “are there enough houses, it’s that so many are second or third homes.

PEC President Chris Miller zeroes in on land conservation strides in Rappahannock County. By John McCaslin

“To be honest with you, I don’t know how you balance people’s vacation homes [in Rappahannock] against [local] people’s need for a place to live. That’s a hard one,” he says. “If you’re going to convert the housing on farms [into vacation homes] you better replace it for the people who work here. That’s why it’s important.”

When Miller arrived at the Warrenton-based PEC in 1993 — tasked with coordinating the successful campaign that challenged Disney’s America development proposal — and became its president only three years later, the northern Piedmont region surrounding Rappahannock County was a far cry from what exists today, and “hardly changed since the Civil War.”

“When I started 75 percent of the people who lived here lived on 25 acres or more. Now 75 percent live on 2 acres or less,” Miller points out, referring in whole to the PEC’s nine-county region. “It’s gone from a rural community to an urban-suburban community.”

Particularly Charlottesville and Loudoun, he says, one of the fastest growing counties in the United States, “but it’s true in every county to varying degrees — Rappahannock the least, Loudoun the most.”

Starting most prominently with Disney, Miller and his PEC team that today number only a few dozen — former Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy among them — have worked diligently to preserve what open spaces remain here. In the process, whether called upon or not, they’ve engaged in local and state zoning and planning policies and issues, fighting urban sprawl and highways, power lines and gas pipelines.

“There have been remarkable outcomes,” says the PEC president. “When I walked in the door there was about 80,000 acres of land conserved in the nine counties. We immediately started working on the implementation of a strategy to improve the marketing and incentives for land conservation. We’re now at 410,000 acres. It wasn’t just PEC, lots of folks were involved.”

One of the surprising things Miller has realized through PEC’s impressive land preservation process is that an important way to preserve the Piedmont’s pristine viewsheds — while at the same time supporting its local economy — is through “controlled” or “smart growth.”

“We realized there has to be a constant strategy on smart growth,” he explains. “We’re impacted by commuter patterns from D.C., Richmond, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg. That’s where potential growth comes from, these nearby metropolitan areas. So it’s knowing that it’s not enough to say you don’t want growth, you have to propose a healthy alternative.”

Enter the Coalition for Smarter Growth, founded in 1997 — “an alternative to sprawl,” as the PEC president puts it.

“The amount of land we’ve helped save is remarkable, just by a change in attitude [that’s kept housing and other development] within existing cities and towns, Warrenton, Middleburg, Marshall,” as opposed to building out into the surrounding countryside.

Rappahannock County, Miller points out, is unique to PEC’s other eight counties, and for various reasons, not the least being the small size of its towns and villages.

“You get to Rappahannock and it’s an interesting challenge, because what you’re really talking about are only hundreds of [existing housing] units, which on the scale of the [entire] region is not very many. A single [new] development in Loudoun is two or three thousand units, so it seems like adding . . . 20 units in [the Rappahannock County seat] ought to be pretty achievable.

“The comprehensive plans in most of our counties have actually embraced the idea of growing in towns and service districts or cities, trying to keep the open land around them in rural uses. That’s embedded in policy,” Miller points out, as is the case in Rappahannock County.

That said, the PEC president stresses that a comp plan is simply “a shared vision . . . a policy statement that can be detailed or somewhat vague. The point of it is to say this is what we would like the county to look like, this is how we want to develop, the issues we want to address — clarity on what problems you identify and how to solve them . . . and still respects the scenic values of the county.”

Miller says a county’s enacted zoning codes and subdivision ordinances “is what really matters.”

“What’s unfortunately happened in a lot of the land use cases in Rappahannock is someone is proposing something that no one’s thought of — in a place they didn’t want it to happen — and then you’re sort of in this reactive position. So being a little bit more proactive [is vital] — this is where we would like to have affordable housing, here’s the kind of thing we’d like to have, needs we’d like to meet and are willing to invest.”

Middleburg, surprisingly, “has the highest percentage of affordable housing of any jurisdiction in Virginia,” Miller points out. “The Plains has 24 units in a community of 140 houses. And Marshall just created 30 units — existing houses or new architectural styles consistent with the town.”

Proposed, for the most part, by “motivated citizens” of the towns, as opposed to their county governments, he adds.

As is also the case of late in Rappahannock, where a new nonprofit group, Rappahannock Communities, has been formed in recent months to address the issue of affordable housing in the county — if indeed an issue exists.

While the PEC has weighed in on the topic of affordable housing in its focused region, that hasn’t quite been the case in Rappahannock County, which Miller says is fortunate to have “so many smart people.”

“They haven’t directly or indirectly asked for advice on issues,” he says. “We have found that opinions are so strongly held by very well educated and smart people there . . . . so we’re not surprised they haven’t called us and asked for advice. There’s a lot of experts already. But we stand ready to help in any way we can . . . recognizing some community issues need to be ventilated first. People have to figure out what it is they really disagree about, then the solutions will hopefully be a little easier to find.”

In sprawling Loudoun, on the other hand, the PEC has been heavily involved in helping educate citizens on everything from civics to its comprehensive plan.

“Loudoun is particularly difficult because of its population. They’ve added 300,000 people in the last 20 years. We’ve been working on the comp plan there for the last two-and-a-half years, and in March and April of this year we had 30 public outreach meetings,” notes Miller. “In Loudoun it’s not a question of people having opinions but getting people to have an opinion.

“Loudoun has a high percentage of recent immigrants, people on short term visas who become citizens,” he observes, and the PEC is helping bring them up to speed on everything from property deeds, titles and taxation to the makeup of their local government.

“They know their schools, and the roads they drive on, but do they know that Loudoun borders Prince William County, or has a Board of Supervisors? Probably not,” Miller guesses. “Everyone in Rappahannock knows who their decision makers are.”

All said and done, the PEC continues working towards preserving additional parcels of land in Rappahannock, where some 33,000 acres — about 40 percent of its total land area, including what’s contained in Shenandoah National Park — are already in conservation, second only to Clarke County among the nine counties.

“But you do have to have some growth,” Miller stresses more than once.

To that end, the PEC is currently working with Eldon Farms in Woodville, among others, on “improving the connection between farms and markets, creating a better way for people to sell their goods. Direct sales are a big part of that . . .

“We’re working with folks at Eldon Farms on a proposal to invest in a joint effort on finishing cattle on grass, manufacturing in state and getting it into local markets,” he says, with part of the discussion surrounding perhaps building an “on-site” cattle slaughter house to keep more profits at home.

“If you can have two, three, four, five, ten percent return to an average cow it makes a difference,” Miller says. “We’re working with [Eldon] on some ideas. There’s a market for it. Buy fresh, buy local.”

Then there are Rappahannock landowners who might want to take advantage of conservation easements, which help protect the local food supply, secure sources of water for the future, provide space for wildlife, all while protecting otherwise vanishing viewsheds.

“If you think about a four-hundred acre farm in Rappahannock, if you’ve got 30 percent of the value from a conservation easement in cash, that would be the biggest infusion of cash that family ever had — pay off debt, be able to invest in new equipment. That could be what makes it possible for them to continue their [farming] operation,” he says.

“The whole thing is to get people to see the possibilities. Not to be polarized. We found people are looking for positive things to do. And we are making progress. We’re seeing a lot of positives. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Did we grow? Absolutely. But 120,000 people living in Tysons and not out here, that’s a huge win.

“The solution to every problem is not a government action, it’s identifying what needs to get done and figuring out how to do it,” concludes the PEC president. “Sometimes government works, and sometimes private actions are better. And I think that’s where people need to look. You’re lucky. There’s a lot of pretty creative . . . people in Rappahannock. Tap into it.”

About John McCaslin 477 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.

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