City manager wants to end program that pays farmers not to develop land

Virginia Beach City Manager David Hansen has proposed an end to the city's Agricultural Reserve Program, which has paid farmers not to develop their land since 1995 (Courtesy City of Virginia Beach)
Virginia Beach City Manager David Hansen has proposed an end to the city’s Agricultural Reserve Program, which has paid farmers not to develop their land since 1995 (Courtesy City of Virginia Beach)

VIRGINIA BEACH — In 1995, the City of Virginia Beach began a program, known as the Agricultural Reserve Program or ARP, to preserve rural property in the city’s southern half. Now, City Manager David Hansen is proposing an end to the 23-year-old program, one that has been touted by city and state officials as successful.

As part of his City of Virginia Beach’s 2018-2019 budget proposed to City Council Tuesday, Hansen recommended ending the ARP because of the advent of sea level rise and recurrent flooding as heightened city priorities.

Not only do those issues demand more money, according to Hansen, but they have made large-scale commercial and residential development in the southern half of the city “no longer feasible.” With that low-lying land in southern Virginia Beach less attractive to developers — and therefore less vulnerable to development — the ARP is no longer necessary, according to a memo from Hansen on his decision to terminate the ARP.

Hanson proposed diverting the $4 million in real estate taxes that are used for ARP land purchases every year and reallocating those funds toward storm water initiatives. Over the next 15 years, that reallocation will provide more than $75 million to storm water and flood control projects, Hansen said. The ARP would still retain some funds to pay its debt obligations as a result of past land purchases. Since 1995, 9,722 acres have been purchased by the city as part of the ARP, at a cost of $46.1 million.

The ARP works like this:The city uses a fraction of real estate tax revenue to essentially buy land from farm owners at a price comparable to what a developer might have paid. Those property owners, in turn, lose their ability to develop that property, thus preserving the city’s agricultural base. Agriculture is the third largest industry in the city, according to an ARP fact sheet put out by the city in 2011.

In the above map, results of the ARP take the form of large undeveloped swaths of farmland south of Indian River Road. Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the southern half of Virginia Beach, referenced the intersection of Indian River Road and West Neck Road at Tuesday’s city council meeting as a prime example of how the ARP has preserved rural lands in Virginia Beach (Courtesy of Google)
In the above map, results of the ARP take the form of large undeveloped swaths of farmland south of Indian River Road. Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the southern half of Virginia Beach, referenced the intersection of Indian River Road and West Neck Road at Tuesday’s city council meeting as a prime example of how the ARP has preserved rural lands in Virginia Beach (Courtesy of Google)

Since Hurricane Matthew, the city has moved to prioritize stormwater and drainage projects.

With the threat of sea level rise, Hansen said the city “must take extraordinary actions to dedicate necessary to combat” sea level rise and flooding. Hansen referred to those threats as “public enemy number one.”

However, Hansen also acknowledged that his proposal would not make everyone happy.

“I realize this is a dramatic and controversial change to a long standing program,” Hansen said.

Council member Barbara Henley represents the Princess Anne District where much of the city’s farmland is located. She was part of the committee that created the ARP in the mid-1990s. She did not agree with Hansen’s proposal to end the ARP.

“Our ARP was the first in the state,” Henley said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, “and now there’s even a state program for farmland preservation that was spurned by our program. We plowed the way.” Henley has also benefited financially the farmland purchase program.

The ARP was designed to protect the rural character of southern Virginia Beach by incentivizing farmers to not sell their property to developers, according to Henley, who said the results of the program are quite tangible.

“If you sit at the stoplight at Indian River and West Neck Road, you see the clear effect of ARP; to the south, all you see is undeveloped farmland.”

A public hearing will be held on the proposed budget on April 25 and May 1. City Council will then hold a reconciliation workshop to possibly rework certain budget items on May 8. An adopted budget will be voted on by City Council on May 15.

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