COURTHOUSE – Virginia Beach City Manager Dave Hansen wants to end the agricultural reserve program, which buys development rights so farmers can continue to work their land, and put that money toward flooding.
The ARP, as it is called, has helped preserve more than 9,700 acres of land for farming, the third largest industry in the city and a centerpiece of rural life in Virginia Beach’s south. The program was founded in 1995. Hansen on Tuesday, March 27, said it may no longer be needed.
David Bradley, the city director of budget and management services, said some of the reserve program funding would be used to invest in stormwater projects. It initially could mean roughly $4 million per year or perhaps $75 million over the next 15 years toward stormwater projects.
Hansen acknowledged the proposal to eliminate the reserve program is controversial, calling it one the toughest decisions he’s had to make. Portions of the funding dedicated to the program have been used toward other projects in the past, including the city’s now-abandoned efforts to extend The Tide to Town Center, but this proposal would end it all together.
That plan would need to be adopted by the City Council in the budget process, but it already is stirring concern in the agricultural community. It also has clear opposition among some – though not all – members of the council.
City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District, opposes Hansen’s recommendation.
“That is an understatement,” she said Tuesday.
“I’m going to follow the lead of the representative of Princess Anne,” Mayor Will Sessoms said. “I wish it had not been put in the budget.”
Should the budget proposal pass, the city would stop buying treasury strips to fund acquisitions within the reserve program – meaning no new properties would be enrolled – and dedicate a small portion of the real estate tax levy to administer to the vestiges of the ARP and pay existing debt for the enrolled properties.
“That is the recommendation,” Hansen said.
Hansen in a memo to Sessoms and members of the City Council on Friday, March 23, wrote that “the intent and purpose of the ARP is no longer valid” due to the pressing concerns about managing flooding and sea level rise.
Conditions have changed since the program was founded and there are fewer development pressures in the southern city, he wrote.
“The ability of developers to acquire agricultural land for constructing residential and commercial projects is no longer feasible,” Hansen wrote. “I realize this is a dramatic and controversial change to a long standing program.”
He added that because the threat of “replacing agricultural land with residential development no longer exists, it is logical to consider redirecting those funds to our new number one threat.”
During a briefing for reporters, Hansen said the city remains committed to the agriculture community, despite the proposed end of the reserve program.
“It doesn’t reduce any departmental support to the industry,” Hansen said.
Agriculture made an estimated $124.6 million economic impact here in 2016.
Some members of the City Council asked for more information about how the program works during a work session in which the budget proposal was presented to the body.
“I’m going to support the ARP,” said City Councilmember Ben Davenport, who holds an at-large seat, during an interview before that meeting. “I see the ARP as a major help to stormwater issues. … This is a reasonable approach toward preventing overdevelopment on parcels that shouldn’t be developed.”
City Councilmember Bobby Dyer, who represents the Centerville District, said the need to address flooding outweighs the need to continue the reserve program.
“I’m in favor of diverting it to stormwater,” Dyer said during an interview before the budget presentation. “That’s the priority. The point is – has the ARP run its course?”
City Councilmember John Urhin, who represents the Beach District, did not think so.
“I just think it’s an important program,” Uhrin said following the meeting. “It’s part of our agricultural heritage, which is a lofty goal by itself.”
And Uhrin noted that the program saved Virginia Beach money by providing alternatives to development in rural areas of the city.
“The homes we avoided building there would not have paid for themselves,” he said.
Hansen’s memo about the proposal was released a day after the annual Excellence in Agriculture Awards banquet, which honors those who have served the farming community in the city.
This year’s Excellence in Agriculture winner was David Trimmer, director of the city agriculture department.
“It’s a huge impact to the community,” Trimmer said via telephone on Tuesday, noting that the program has helped ensure generational farming, preserve open space and help farmers maintain operations and expand.
This story is developing. Look for more coverage in the print edition of The Independent News this weekend.
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