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Editorial: Effort to kill a farmland preservation program that helps all of Virginia Beach must be stopped

That ending the agricultural reserve program was proposed at all — then argued with questionable logic — shows a troubling division between Virginia Beach government and the rural communities it takes for granted.

THE INDEPENDENT NEWS

PUNGO — Two years ago, following his appointment as city manager of Virginia Beach, Dave Hansen attended the annual 4-H livestock auction in Creeds. Face to face, he spoke with people from rural communities. Later, city officials laudably came together in Blackwater to discuss local issues.

Now, that relationship seems tested.

The manager proposed shuttering the agricultural reserve program, or ARP, which helps farmers continue to work land that can be more valuable as housing. He did so without input from the people or their elected representative. A resolution seems likely, but this was an unnecessary mess.

Reasonable assessment of the plan to take about $4 million per year from farmland preservation and put it toward stormwater projects finds it lacking. Hansen wrote to the City Council that his “recommended action will not reduce our department of agriculture’s full support of the agriculture industry and our farming community.” This is absurd. The ARP is not the department’s only program, but it is the flagship effort.

The manager’s calculation came without significant input from citizens here. It surprised members of the City Council, for whom Hansen works. It blindsided farmers serving on a city advisory commission, as well as the many rural citizens for whom the elected members of City Council work.

Hansen wrote that the “ability of developers to acquire land for constructing residential and commercial projects is no longer feasible.” Future conditions may limit potential in some places, but we should not discount the ability of developers to make opportunities.

The issues development has brought in the transition area just north of the city’s remaining rural communities yet south of the Green Line are a warning. It is an area in which local government’s wise plan to build subdivisions that would pay their own way is taking on some water. And developers have now proposed a thematically marketed “agrihood” subdivision that could sit atop Pungo’s heart, changing the gateway to our rural south.

Hansen is right that the threats of sea level rise and recurrent flooding are pressing concerns, but it hardly means “the intent and purpose of the ARP is no longer valid.” Yet this is the justification for taking funds that help farmers farm to instead bail out areas such as Ashville Park, an area that is struggling, in part, due to the city’s past failure to review projects carefully and critically. 

Common sense suggests Virginia Beach’s incentive to maintain fields as farmland rather than as pedestals for homes helps the goal of avoiding adding to the stormwater runoff woes in a city that once viewed subdivisions as salvation. 

There is a philosophical point to be made about whether any industries should be subsidized. But this is neither Hansen’s stated reasoning nor an argument many folks associated with Virginia Beach government should attempt with a straight face.

Government helps industry because it is in the public interest to do so. Government help to farmers in Virginia Beach is modest. 

The ARP is a program that backs up binding policy in the city’s comprehensive land use plan, and it also is an economic development program that helps sustain the third-largest industry in Virginia Beach while avoiding the costly extension of services residential growth can bring with great speed. 

Yes, many of the projects Hansen would help with ARP funds are worthy, including in Ashville Park, which needs relief. But, no, that does not mean the ARP has outlived its need. Given comments by many members of the City Council, it is likely that the ARP will survive a flawed proposal, but that this idea was aired at all — coupled with its problematic unveiling — causes real distrust. 

This was a signal, whether Hansen truly meant to kill the program or to set a bargaining position. Stormwater projects will probably get some piece of the ARP money if recent conversations bear fruit, but how this was announced will not be changed by how it is averted.

The meaningful conversations since this surprising proposal was announced this past month should have taken place before the manager announced anything.


© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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