Nestled deep in the woods off Centerville Road, Tom and Vicky Hitchens’ house is a small oasis in James City County.
The two-story home sits hundreds of feet back from the bustle of Centerville and News roads, overlooking a serene creek. Small birds frequent a metal bird feeder off the back porch, and a Jon boat sits quietly waiting at the creek’s edge.
In Tom Hitchens’ eyes, his backyard — combined with the county’s other scenic vistas and farmlands — is the soul of James City County.
But with proposed development, road widening and other projects in the area, some residents, including Hitchens, 67, are concerned James City County is losing the exact characteristics that make it special.
A resident of the county for his entire life and a retired general contractor, Hitchens worries a diminishing amount of farmland and forest will change what it means to live in James City County.
“I want to protect more places like this,” Hitchens said while standing on his back lawn overlooking the creek. “I’m not against development, I just want to guide it better.”
The project that has most recently raised alarms is a set of 126 apartments on Richmond Road classified as “affordable” housing.
Proposed by developer Connelly Development LLC, the apartments would be spread between five buildings on almost 15 acres. Because of the population density on the parcel, the property would need to be rezoned from A1(general agricultural) to R5 (multi-family residential).
Although it’s zoned A1, the proposed parcel for Oakland Pointe apartments is located within the county’s primary service area — an area county officials have designated for growth.
According to the Planning Commission, the apartments would help fill a void in affordable housing in the county, an issue that county officials have been discussing for years.
Rental rates would hover between $658 for a two bedroom and $1,100 for a three bedroom, the developer has previously said.
A Planning Commission staff report also noted the developer offered to “demonstrate commitment to various Board of Supervisors adopted policies and other public benefits (including affordable housing).”
The project was originally set for public hearing at Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting, the developer asked it to be deferred until early May to address traffic concerns.
“We are sympathetic to the concerns of the community and are in the process of reaching out to the stakeholder groups to engage in dialogue about their concerns and [plan] to host a community meeting,” the developer’s attorney Timothy Trant II said.
Protecting farmland and forest
Decades ago, James City County was primarily farm country.
Marty Davis Benton, 75, graduated from James Blair High School in 1961. She remembers driving up Richmond Road toward Toano and Norge with “just land” on either side of the road — save for the occasional old, “bent” house.
Benton moved to Texas years ago, but still visits Williamsburg occasionally. Every time she returns, more stores and houses are built.
“I can’t find my way sometimes, it’s so different,” she said.
At the turn of the 20th century, James City County had 566 farms comprised of 69,335 acres. By 2012, the number fell to 83 farms making up 5,544 acres, according to 2012 data from the Virginia Census of Agriculture, the most recent data available.
Starting in 1900, the population of the county also grew from 3,688 residents to 74,404 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ongoing development will continue the trend of diminishing farmland and increasing population, Hitchens said.
In the past year, Hitchens has fought two other developments on A1 land: The Parke at Ford’s Colony near his home, and Chickahominy Summerplace.
Both developments would clear green space and forest to make room for more densely-packed houses on half-acre lots at Westport and one-acre lots at Chickahominy Sumperplace, Hitchens said.
Properties zoned A1 only allow one residence per three acres, but both developments would have packed properties more densely.
“I would be satisfied knowing my legacy is that I saved some trees in James City County,” Hitchens said.
While James City County is traditionally agricultural, the history is another characteristic worth preserving, according to Linda Rice.
Rice, a 40-year resident of James City County, says the county’s lands are saturated with history — from shipbuilding, to the revolutionary and civil wars, and more.
“I would say that we’re not against development, it’s more trying to achieve a balance between development and, to me, the very unique areas of the county,” Rice said.
Rice is also the president of a citizen’s group called Friends of Forge Road and Toano, which aims to protect and honor the area’s history. The group has around 40 members, and about 15 are active.
Forge Road, which starts about 1.5 miles from the proposed Oakland Pointe apartments, has “thankfully” remained mostly rural because farmland for sale has been purchased by horse owners, Rice said.
“I’ve lived here a long time,” Rice said. “When you live out here, you really start getting the deeper sense of history. It’s more than just rural character.”
Protective programs at play in JCC
Over the years, James City County has had several programs and options for protecting rural lands — but not all have survived the test of time.
The county’s Purchase of Development Rights program was put on pause following a decision by the Board of Supervisors in 2016. The board agreed to spend the remaining $1,031,535 in the program account, then freeze it.
The PDR program financially compensated landowners who volunteered to have their acres permanently preserved from development.
Landowners who want to preserve the rural land can also donate their land to the land conservancy.
“Why do people come to James City County?” Hitchens asked. “They come for the water and vistas that are pristine because of the lack of development. There’s plenty of places to build already — don’t come into the trees quite yet.”
Other potential issues
Keeping areas of James City County rural will also help keep taxes low because rural lands do not tap as many county resources, like schools or emergency services.
“Residential areas don’t support the tax base,” Hitchins said.
Although Oakland Pointe is proposed in an area designated for growth, traffic and the fiscal impact on the county budget have been concerns.
According to county planning documents, the Oakland Pointe apartments would also have a $635,589 annual negative fiscal impact because of its drain on county resources, such as area schools.
A traffic study by DRW Consultants LLC also showed there would need to be lane modifications in the area around the proposed complex to accommodate an additional 887 daily trips complex residents and guests would make.
As the application stands, Planning Department staff have not recommended the project’s approval.
Hitchens agrees the county is in need of affordable housing — and adamantly says he is not against it — but said the proposed Oakland Pointe complex is simply in the wrong place and not fiscally responsible.
“I’m not against affordable housing,” Hitchens said. “We need that so people can afford to live and work here. I just think we need to be more thoughtful about where we place these developments.”
Rice also feels similarly.
“Why don’t you start thinking of other places in the county where it could be better, like some of those shopping complexes that could use redevelopment,” Rice said.
Inviting developments into the county should not be taken lightly, Rice said, because multiple developments at once will have a “cumulative impact.”
“If you start looking at the projects cumulatively, that’s where you need to start asking yourself about schools, safety, stormwater management and more,” Rice said.
“People down in the lower part of the county ask why they should care about developments in the upper county. Well, you’re going to care if they keep coming in.”
Fearing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.