After advisory commission, farmers oppose plan to end farmland preservation program, ‘compromise’ goes to Virginia Beach City Council

Bart Frye, a member of the Virginia Beach Agriculture Advisory Commission, speaks during the commission’s quarterly meeting on Monday, April 9. After writing a letter against a proposal by City Manager Dave Hansen to end the agricultural reserve program, commissioners met again later in the week. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

COURTHOUSE — The Virginia Beach Agriculture Advisory Commission on Friday, April 13, voted to recommend that the City Council maintain the agricultural reserve program while supplying some money for a project to address flooding in Ashville Park and, over a longer time frame, stormwater projects in rural communities.

The vote was held during a special meeting in which the city staff presented budget scenarios to commissioners. And it came after a recommendation in March by City Manager Dave Hansen to end the ARP, as the farmland preservation program is known, shifting about $4 million in annual tax funding toward stormwater projects to fight flooding, which he called “our new number one threat.” 

Hansen wanted to shift dedicated tax funding for the program to stormwater projects, leaving only enough to pay existing commitments and for administration while no new acreage would be enrolled. However, there has been little political support for ending the ARP all together, and the idea led to an outcry in the city’s rural communities.

In the first year of Hansen’s original proposal, about $3 million would have gone to Ashville Park, a subdivision built with a flawed drainage system in the transition area between suburban areas of Virginia Beach and rural communities in the southern city. 

The commission recommendation, should the City Council incorporate it into the budget, would instead provide a one-time payment of $1.5 million from reserve funding toward the Ashville Park improvements and then dedicate nearly $1 million annually toward a drainage project in rural communities, according to officials present at the meeting and details included in a letter released on Monday, April 16.

That latter sum — or $990,000, to be precise — of “excess revenue” would go toward a southern canal and lead ditch stormwater project, providing funding through FY45, according to the Monday, April 16, letter signed by Agriculture Commission Chairperson Diane Horsley.

The letter uses a projection prepared by city staff as its basis, and the plan recommended by the commission is one of a few scenarios put forward last week by the staff.

Importantly to rural communities, the proposal would enable the ARP to maintain its dedicated tax funding and continue to target adding about 300 acres per year to a program that purchases development rights from farmers and landowners to ensure the land can keep being used for agricultural purposes or kept undeveloped.

City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District and has championed the ARP, said the response by the agricultural community to Hansen’s initial proposal to end the program has sent a message that it is still viable and helps farmers. 

Members of the City Council, too, have said the program matters, with Mayor Will Sessoms noting that he wished the idea had not been included in Hansen’s budget proposal. Henley said this past week that there are enough votes on the City Council to preserve the program, though she also warned nothing is certain until a budget is adopted in May.

“I think the strength of the program has been shown by the reaction from everybody,” Henley said, adding that the recommendation may be put forward this coming week, possibly today.

Language for the letter to the City Council about the recommendation was still being worked on as the most recent edition of The Independent News went to press on the afternoon of the meeting, and it was not made available to a reporter as the print edition was completed. The newspaper was not notified in advance about the Friday, April 13, meeting.

“I think they’ve come to a pretty good conclusion that will ensure we keep the ARP and help provide some for stormwater,” Henley said last week.

“We’ve come to a compromise, I guess,” said Agriculture Commissioner Jason Dawley on Friday, April 13. He said that the money that might go to stormwater projects from ARP funds may be more than he might like, but it was better than the original proposal announced by Hansen.

“But there’s still plenty of money to fund 300 acres going to the program,” Dawley said, noting a goal for the ARP, which has already preserved more than 9,700 acres. 

The special meeting came only a few days after the commission’s regularly-scheduled quarterly meeting on Monday, April 13, in which the commissioners recommended another plan to provide some ARP funding to projects in southern communities that was brought to them by Henley, but those numbers changed after the commission and staff met Friday.

On Monday, April 9, there was a clear sense that the advisory commissions meant to take a strong position in response to the Hansen memorandum — and would become more active in making recommendations to the City Council going forward. That evening, commissioners signed a letter taking issue with Hansen’s assertion that the ARP was no longer needed.

Farmers have contacted and written to members of the City Council in support of maintaining the program, and several letters have been published in The Independent News.

“The community rose up,” Agriculture Director David Trimmer said during an interview on Friday, April 13. “It came together and spoke as one voice.”

In an interview, Horsley said she understood Hansen needs to find money for stormwater projects from somewhere, and she said the meeting on Friday was a positive one.

“There’s no hard feelings,” she said.

The commission’s recommendation will next go to the council, still amid the season of budget recommendations and negotiations.

“City Council has the ultimate say so,” Horsley said.

© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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