Local Planning Resources

Definitions and descriptions of important terms and concepts.

 

Agricultural and Forestal Districts
By Right Uses, Special Use Permits, and Rezonings
Clustering
Comprehensive Plans
Conservation Easements
Growth Areas
Land Use Taxation
Large Lot Zoning
Phasing
Proffers
Purchase of Development Rights Programs
Recognition of Resources
Sliding Scale Zoning
Subdivision Ordinance
Transfer of Development Rights Programs
Zoning Ordinance

 

Agricultural and Forestal Districts

An Agricultural and Forestal district results from a voluntary agreement between one or more landowners and the local governing body to temporarily protect forests and farmland. Landowners agree not to develop their property for a certain period of time, usually eight years. During this period of time, the property will be eligible for land use taxation, if it is not already eligible.

 

By Right Uses, Special Use Permits and Rezonings

In each zoning district, certain kinds of development are allowed by right. As long as landowners comply with the requirements of the ordinance, their right to use the property in those ways is assured. Other uses are allowed only by special permit, which the locality may issue at its discretion.

Much local planning activity is in response to landowner requests to have land rezoned to allow more intensive use. Before a zoning amendment can be enacted, the public must be given notice and public hearings must be held before both the Planning Commission and the governing body (the County Board of Supervisors, the Town Council or the City Council). The Planning Commission must review the proposed rezoning and make a recommendation. However, this recommendation is not binding on the governing body. The landowner has 30 days from the date of final action by the governing body to appeal an adverse decision to the circuit court.

 

Clustering

Clustering can limit the amount of land consumed by development by concentrating buildings on a small percentage of the property, leaving the rest as open space. Clustering does not limit the total number of development rights, so the development will result in the same impacts on water supplies, roads, and public services. However, when done well, clustering can help maintain usable tracts of land for agriculture or forestry, preserve viewsheds and watersheds, and protect wildlife habitats.

 

Comprehensive Plans

Every locality in Virginia must express its goals in a Comprehensive Plan, a twenty-year vision which must be reviewed and/or revised every five years. These documents are of foundational importance for communities that wish to shape their own future. Although the plans are not legally binding, they are intended to guide all local policy and they serve as legal justification for the City or County's decisions on proposed developments.

The Code of Virginia states that a comprehensive plan may include "but need not be limited to" the following designations:
- Present and proposed land uses (such as conservation, agricultural, residential, commercial, mixed use, or industrial)
- A transportation system, including streets, highways, railways, waterways, airports, etc.
- A system of community service facilities such as parks, schools, forests, hospitals, waterworks, sewage disposals, public buildings, etc.
- Historical areas and urban renewal areas.
- Areas for implementation of reasonable groundwater protection measures

Most Comprehensive Plans will include a Future Land Use Map, showing where various kinds of land use will be encouraged. Public input during a Comprehensive Plan review is vital to the creation of a document that will accurately reflect the local citizens' vision. However, it is important to keep in mind that the plan itself cannot make this vision a reality, because the plan is not legally binding. Once the vision is established, the local government must follow through by enacting laws and policies that will fulfill the community's goals.

 

Conservation Easements

A landowner can protect his or her land forever by donating a conservation easement. A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a government agency or a non-profit organization that places permanent limits on the future development of the property in order to protect its conservation values. Each easement is unique, depending on the needs of the landowners and the specific features of the property. Because conservation easements provide considerable public benefits, landowners become eligible for state and federal tax incentives when they donate an easement. Learn more about conservation easements.

 

Growth Areas

Most plans in Virginia, including those for counties in the PEC region, rely on a similar overall strategy: to accommodate projected growth within designated growth areas and to protect rural areas where agricultural and forestal activities are encouraged. The plans indicate that public funds for infrastructure should be concentrated in the growth areas.

Concentrating growth in designated areas can have numerous positive effects. This traditional pattern of land use situates neighborhoods so they are convenient to schools, jobs, services, shopping and transit stops, thus reducing household transportation costs. This pattern is also essential to the growth of towns and cities as thriving economic and cultural centers. Compact rather than sprawling development can prevent expensive requirements for new tax-funded infrastructure, such as roads and water lines. This pattern also prevents the loss of rural lands that are valued for their scenic beauty, productive soils, supply of clean water and other qualities.

 

Land Use Taxation

Under land-use taxation, some rural properties are taxed at their land use value instead of their fair market value. This two tier system makes sense for farmers and other rural landowners, since they make few demands for tax-funded services. It also makes sense for all taxpayers, because if high taxes pressure the people who work the land to sell off lots or develop their property, everyone will have to pay more. This is because, on average, residential properties cost localities more than they pay in taxes, while farms, forests, and open space cost less than they pay in taxes.

The state allows localities to offer land use taxation for eligible properties in any of the following categories: agricultural, forestal, horticultural and/or open space. It is important to note that even on properties eligible for land use taxation, houses, farm buildings and other structures are always taxed at their fair market value. When the land changes to a use no longer qualifying for land use assessment, the landowner must pay back the difference between use value tax and the fair market value tax for a certain number of years, depending on the locality.

 

Large Lot Zoning

By limiting the number of houses that can be built in rural areas, large-lot zoning aims to preserve open space and keep rural land viable for agriculture or forestry. Among its benefits, large lot zoning can leave wooded landscapes relatively intact and protect water quality, depending on how developments are sited and designed. However, with definitions of "large lots" ranging from 5 to 25 acres, large lot zoning can also result in a waste of rural land for tracts that are "too large to mow and too small to farm."

Some counties use variations of large-lot zoning in an effort to alleviate this negative effect. Albemarle allows landowners to create a limited number of small lots from a tract of land, after which only large lots can be created. Other variations include sliding scale zoning and clustering (below).

 

Phasing

Phasing limits the number of lots into which a tract of land can be divided over a certain period of time. Phasing does not change the total number of development rights, but it can help to prevent the rapid suburbanization of rural areas. This keeps local communities from being overwhelmed by demands for new infrastructure and it may dissuade developers from undertaking large scale subdivisions in rural areas.

 

Proffers

In general, under Virginia law, a locality may not impose conditions on a rezoning. However, if the applicant for the rezoning voluntarily "proffers" (offers) conditions in writing before the public hearing before the governing body, those conditions may be incorporated in the rezoning. Proffers may seem like a great boon to the locality. But this can be misleading. Most proffers only partially offset the costs of the services a new development will require. In Virginia, a locality must base its suggested proffer amounts only on capital facilities costs-the costs of new construction. So, standard proffers might cover part of the expense for a new school, but the locality will still need to pay teachers' salaries and pay to keep the lights on. A new residential development is unlikely to pay its own way unless proffers significantly exceed the estimated capital facilities costs.

Another drawback is that proffers can divert localities from focusing on whether the rezoning makes good use of the land. On major developments a developer can offer a glittering array of proffers that may obscure the fact that the underlying rezoning will have serious detrimental affects on the community or the environment. In optimal circumstances, however, proffers allow localities to accommodate desirable growth while reducing or avoiding fiscal impacts that could lead to higher local taxes.

 

Purchase of Development Rights Programs

Localities can proactively support land conservation by establishing a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program. Publicly supported PDR programs pay landowners-usually working farmers-to limit the development potential of their land through a conservation easement. With a PDR program in place, farmers can choose to cash in some of the equity in their land, without losing ownership or their ability to farm the land. This option offers farmers a financially competitive alternative to selling their land for development. Considering the potential savings in construction and maintenance of schools, roads, and other public services, these programs can save localities more than they cost.

 

Recognition of Resources

Honorary designations-such as historic districts, scenic highways, or scenic rivers-do not create any new restrictions on the use of property. However, such designations can help a community to identify resources that are important for conservation, which the community may then decide to protect through individual actions such as conservation easements or through governmental protections. In one outstanding example of how honorary designations can motivate individual landowners, over 20,000 acres-more than one third of the total land-in the contiguous Madison-Barbour and Southwest Mountains Rural Historic Districts in Orange and Albemarle Counties--are now protected through voluntary conservation easements.

 

Sliding Scale Zoning

Sliding scale zoning helps to keep large parcels of land intact by allowing fewer building rights per acre for large tracts of land than for smaller tracts. For example, in Clarke County a parcel containing between 40 and 80 acres is allowed three houses while a parcel containing over 1,030 acres, no matter how large, can have only 15 houses. The theory is that the larger the parcel, the more of an agricultural resource it represents and thus the potential for non-agricultural use should be more limited.

 

Subdivision Ordinance

Subdivision ordinances control the manner in which subdivisions are laid out. Probably their most important impact is in dictating the standards that must be met for subdivision streets. Subdivision ordinances also control the dimensions of lots, the utilities required to serve lots, sight distance for entrances, frontage improvements to existing roads and so forth.

Normally people think of subdivisions as residential development. In fact, depending upon how the local ordinance defines subdivision, subdivision ordinances apply any time a landowner wants to divide his land into more parcels, regardless of whether the ultimate use of the land will be residential or otherwise.

 

Transfer of Development Rights Programs

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs use a market-based approach to encourage higher density development in growth areas while reducing the development potential of rural areas. Rural areas identified for protection are designated as "sending areas" and growth areas where density is encouraged are designated as "receiving areas." Landowners in the sending areas can sell development rights to developers who plan to build in the receiving areas. Some jurisdictions establish banks for development rights they purchase from land owners. Developers may go either to landowners directly to ask to purchase development rights or buy them from the bank. But unless a locality decides to establish a bank for TDRs, the transactions do not require public monies.

 

Zoning Ordinance

While the comprehensive plan serves as a guide, the zoning ordinance actually dictates how land is to be used. The zoning ordinance expressly states what a landowner is and is not allowed to do with his property, according to the zoning district in which the property is located. Zoning districts specify the types of land uses allowed in a given area, such as conservation, agricultural, residential, business, mixed or industrial uses.

The Code of Virginia lists the following as valid objectives for zoning and other land use regulations:
- Improving the health, safety, convenience and welfare of its citizens.
- Planning the future development of communities, with particular regard to transportation systems
- Developing new community centers with adequate highway, utility, health, educational, and recreational facilities
- Recognizing the need for mineral resources and the needs of agriculture, industry and business in future growth.
- Providing residential areas with healthy surroundings for family life.
- Preserving agricultural and forestal land.
- Assuring that the growth of the community is consonant with the efficient and economical use of public funds.

 
 
 

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