A major new commercial and residential development is planned for the congested strip east of Stephens City on Fairfax Pike, somewhat to the dismay of some members of the Frederick County Planning Commission.
“I wish there was some way we could vote ‘no’ on this,” remarked Vice Chairman Roger Thomas at the panel’s Nov. 18 meeting. He described Fairfax Downs as “a lot of kids, a lot of traffic and a lot of safety concerns,” and lamented that the county government might have to “clean up the mess.”
Chairman Kevin Kenney added: “There’s nothing we can do.”
How was our county government rendered powerless in the face of this flawed project?
Developer Beverley Shoemaker was able to avoid a rezoning vote, a public hearing, and the payment of any proffers — the money that helps fund schools, parks and other facilities — by making use of “transferable development rights.” These will allow her to build 93 houses and commercial space on 84 acres along the highway and next to Sherando High School. Without the TDRs, she could build only 10 houses.
Supervisor Blaine Dunn mentioned at a board meeting that this project will generate about $25,000 in infrastructure costs per home. That adds up to a $2.35 million bill for taxpayers.
TDRs are usually touted as a way for family farmers to sell off homebuilding rights to developers who are then allowed to skip the rezoning process and build elsewhere at a greater density, thus preserving agricultural land and directing development to areas that can best be served by existing infrastructure.
That’s not quite how it worked with this project.
According to county records, Shoemaker obtained TDRs from eight parcels in rural areas of the county, including some from her own land around her house west of Stephens City.
She received others from the Cedar Creek Nutrient and Conservation Facility, listed as the owner of 286 acres in the western part of the county and whose registered agent is Mark D. Smith. On closer look, this “facility” appears to be open land and woods surrounding Smith’s million-dollar home – hardly a struggling family farm and unlikely to be carved up into five-acre home sites.
Smith is also the president of Greenway Engineering, which happens to be the firm that shepherded Shoemaker’s project through the county planning process.
Smith has distributed TDRs to another developer and colleague via the opaquely named Winchester Management LLC from land in the far northeastern reaches of the county.
It’s pretty clear: TDRs are being traded among the development crowd on land that most likely won’t be developed anyway, allowing them to pack a lot more houses into the Urban Development Area while dumping the associated costs on the public.
To some people, that’s a legitimate way to cut through government red tape and maximize profits.
To others, it’s gaming the system.