In the fall of 1983, I took a one semester seminar titled “Creative Land Development” at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design taught by noted land use consultant Robert A. Lemire.
The premise of the course was to save what needs to be saved, build what needs to be built while always dealing equitably with the property owners.
I took the concept back to Northwestern Connecticut where I ran the regional land trust division of a watershed conservation organization known as the Housatonic Valley Association.
Our effort was to save the important conservation elements of scenic Northwestern Connecticut while accommodating new development, mostly residential, while trying to meet the financial needs and desires of the property owners.
Key conservation attributes to be protected included water courses and their riparian buffers, important farmland soils, steep hillsides, important aquifer recharge areas and scenic rural viewsheds.
Our planning efforts always started with identifying what needed protecting first, then blending in what needed to be built, keeping in mind that it needed to be financially viable for the landowner or land purchaser.
Conservation easements were generally used to ensure the permanent protection of selected conservation areas.
When I moved back to Blacksburg in 1988, I tried to bring this concept to this region, starting as a senior planner for the New River Valley Planning District Commission.
I secured a grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment in Richmond to develop an open space plan for Montgomery County and Blacksburg based on Lemire’s concept.
I also held public informational meetings sponsored in part by the planning district on the need to form a local conservation land trust to guide development while saving important conservation attributes.
We selected Sam Obenshain’s 140-acre Oaknoll Farm on Prices Fork Road as a demonstration project due to its quality farmland and sweeping vistas from Prices Fork Road.
Cluster development was introduced as the concept for saving important conservation attributes. It often requires public water and sewer to accommodate both substantial preservation goals and a project’s financial viability.
I am now proposing a Lemirian approach to the conservation and creative development of undeveloped portions of the Toms Creek basin in northwest Blacksburg.
This area is currently zoned RR-1, Rural Residential (very low density), which limits residential density to one unit per acre. It also requires setting aside 50 percent of the area as permanent open space although it doesn’t dictate where that open space is located nor require that it be connected from one property to the next for wildlife corridors. It also does not adequately address establishment of recreational corridors.
There is, however, a creek valley overlay zoning district that helps to protect riparian areas along Toms Creek and its main tributaries.
Blacksburg has a wide array of housing needs, almost none of which are being met by an RR-1 zoning classification. RR-1 zoning is nothing more than mandated rural sprawl, often providing little provision for connected open space areas, recreational greenway corridors or a comprehensive open space plan over a large expanse of area.
It is also incomprehensible that although residents of the Toms Creek basin pay in-town taxes almost none of them is served by in-town sewer service. A small portion of the area also is not served by town water. Consequently, the three key components of a Lemire planning effort—protection of what needs protecting, building what needs to be built, and dealing equitably with property owners—all appear to be wanting with the town’s treatment of the Toms Creek basin.
To advance Lemire’s planning concept, a comprehensive planning effort should be undertaken involving the Blacksburg Planning Department and Planning Commission, community planning groups (the New River Land Trust, VA Tech Community Design Center, Community Housing Partners, etc.), interested Toms Creek landowners and others with community and land planning experience.
Their goal would be to develop schematic design alternatives for the Toms Creek basin in and adjacent to northwest Blacksburg. Such a design charrette for the 20-acre former Blacksburg Middle School site helped lead to what is now occurring on that critical site.
Concepts such as a “central” park, a trail system, and a community green oriented toward community events all made it into the site’s final approved plan. Such plans would be mostly conceptual in nature but could and should include input from property owners as well as other stake holders.
I advance this proposal to the Blacksburg Town Council as this effort could lead to results that benefit our greater community. Time is of the essence before the area’s by-right RR-1 development guidelines lessen the chance for more constructive land use decisions.