BY BARBARA HENLEY
VIRGINIA BEACH — We’ve come to take our agricultural reserve program for granted. Time has passed and there has been a lot of turnover of people, so the value of it is not fully understood.
Our ARP was the first of its kind in the state. Now there is even a state program for farmland preservation that was spurred by our program. We plowed the way.
It took years for us to learn how to deal with the sprawl that was devouring our land and to develop this program. During the 1980s, when we were in the midst of the building boom, we could see that sprawl was gobbling up the whole city.
In the south, it was “farmettes.”
We tried to control it with regulations that, we found, just didn’t work. It was not fair, and it was totally unacceptable. It caused a lot of pain.
We looked at transferrable development rights, or TDRs. [Ed. — This allows a landowner to sell development rights to a developer who can use the rights to increase development density elsewhere.] We spent a few years trying to convince the General Assembly to give localities that tool to guide development — to no avail.
By the early 1990s, the extreme pressure for continued sprawl was winning. Citizens realized that something had to be done soon. A practically unheard of coalition of people from the agricultural community and environmental organizations came together to try to find a workable solution. We looked at purchase of development rights, or PDR. [Ed. — As the name implies, this means a locality buys development rights but not the land itself, allowing that property to be conserved and farmed rather than developed.]
It was the genius of Bill Macali, now retired from the city attorney’s office, who found enabling legislation that would allow the purchase of development rights program to be carefully crafted. And that’s what we set out to do.
This took another couple of years to develop — and then to convince the property owners that this was the right path to take. After all of that, it finally came to the city staff and the City Council who were willing to give it a try, and it was adopted in 1995.
You have been spared the pain of having to deal with farmettes. This voluntary choice provided in the ARP has been embraced by property owners as a fair and better option to capture the equity in their property and still keep it as farmland.
Virginia Beach would be very, very different if we had not adopted the ARP. Ten thousand acres in the south would probably now be converted to residential use.
Thankfully, one of the first properties that came into the program was the Dawley property in West Neck. If you sit at the stoplight at Indian River and West Neck roads, you see the clear effect of the ARP. To the south, you see undeveloped farmland.
On the Pungo side of the creek, the Flanagan farm was one of the first in, and that has been the plug to protect that side.
If the Transition Area had used the ARP as originally intended, we would have a very different set of circumstances than we are dealing with today — $35 million to fix drainage in Asheville Park. [Ed. — For information about the Transition Area, meant as a buffer between suburban and rural areas of the city, click this link.]The offer value of ARP properties at the time of their applications totals about $46 million, but those development rights were acquired and funded with the purchase of about $14 million in U.S. Treasury strips.
Of course, you have to add the interest cost to that in order to total the cost of the program. If we were to calculate the cost of extending infrastructure and the cost of providing services if the area had been allowed to develop unchecked, the city would still be far ahead with ARP. Unchecked development would mean that we would have precious little agricultural land left today.
When the program was adopted, we could see its benefits:
- The continuation of a viable agriculture industry to contribute to the city’s diverse economy.
- The reduction in the need to extend major urban infrastructure to the south and provide additional services to the additional population.
- Protection of environmentally sensitive areas of land and waterways.
- Preservation of open space and the rural character of the county area.
The program has had many unanticipated beneficial effects. One of those has been helping to keep the southern flyway free from housing, a benefit to Naval Air Station Oceana.
This question of sea level rise and stormwater control was not even on the radar in the early years. I don’t know for sure, but common sense tells me the first line of defense against sea level rise is keeping structures out of the most threatened areas. And this area in the south is threatened. Even building on the narrow ridge sends stormwater down through the lower properties to reach either the river on the west or Back Bay on the east.
My understanding of our process with the Dewberry study is that in the fall we will see some draft recommendations about how to address sea level rise. At that time, we are going to have to make some tough decisions about what to do for the future. I have to believe that we are sitting here now with one of the best tools we could have for beginning the process of addressing flooding in that south.
That’s the ARP. Instead of abandoning it, I think we will find the need to strengthen it. But that decision needs to come in a few months when we have the scientific data to guide our decisions.
Yes, there will be engineering choices. Maybe some of the ARP money can be allocated to some of those needs. We’ve used ARP money before to supplement other needs. Five million ARP dollars went to help establish the city’s Open Space Program.
The agricultural reserve program is tried and tested, accepted and proven. It is the best option in place to help the southern areas of Virginia Beach address sea level rise. Please keep it.
Recognize the program for the multiple benefits it provides and the opportunities we have to use it as a major way to address flooding in the south.
Virginia Beach City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer, represents the Princess Anne District, and her family’s farm has participated in the program. This is adapted from prepared remarks delivered during a meeting on Tuesday, March 27. It has been edited for clarity and style.
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