REALTORS® Take Action: Making Smart Growth Happen

REALTORS® in central Virginia like to say that they take a “panoramic view of the landscape, and a long view of the future.” So when Culpeper County was required to review its comprehensive land use plan, the Greater Piedmont Area Association of REALTORS® (GPAAR) realized the best way to help county leaders bring the area’s housing long view into focus was to work together. And thanks to a unique collaboration; county planners, local REALTORS® and area research and policy experts have a clear understanding of the current housing picture and what that landscape will look like in 25 years.

Comprehensive plans provide local leaders with essential vision, examination and guidance and Virginia law requires their review every five years. Plans include detailed data for infrastructure areas such as public facilities, public services, utilities, parks and transportation and essential community data concerning demographics, economics, housing, agriculture and historic resources. A plan also makes recommendations for existing and future land use, but doesn’t specify development timelines or initiatives.

Culpeper County’s first comprehensive plan was created in 1964 and was scheduled for review in 2015. The county has always been rural, but since it’s located near the metropolitan area of Washington D.C., some local leaders were concerned it could be on the verge of becoming a bedroom community. With unprecedented population growth during the last decade, county officials needed sound data to inform zoning and municipal plans that would not only meet the county’s growing needs but still maintain its desired rural character. GPAAR leadership knew what data was necessary for an understanding of local housing and recognized that county leaders might welcome an expert, independent analysis.

“GPAAR has strong relationships with the local professional staff like the county administrator and planners. We have regular conversations and are familiar with the comprehensive plan,” explained GPAAR Legislative Consultant Susan Gaston. “GPAAR and the county recognized the void of solid housing data and knew that neither of us had the personal and economic capital to do research on their own. We thought a Housing Opportunity grant could help fill that void.”

GPAAR leaders decided the best way to conduct the needed research was to seek out independent, third party expertise.

With the help of a $5,000 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR) Housing Opportunity grant, GPAAR commissioned David Versel — senior research associate with nearby George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis with more than 15 years of experience in real estate market and feasibility evaluations and regional development planning — to conduct a thorough and objective study of current housing realities and future needs. GPAAR had worked with the university on previous events and knew that Versel and the Center for Regional Analysis would be a good fit for the housing research required for the comprehensive plan.

“The REALTORS® gave carte blanche access to housing data and the multiple listings and then stepped back,” Gaston said. “The REALTORS® had no further contact until the report was done. It was completely independent. That was really important to everyone.”

Gaston said that the result was a true partnership involving Culpeper County, GPAAR and George Mason University. Strong existing relationships, a sound process and impeccable research credibility and expertise ensured success. In fact, Gaston added, county officials put so much trust in Versel’s work that county planners personally drove him around the county to help him gain a firsthand perspective of housing.

The result was “A Housing Needs and Market Analysis for Culpeper County, Virginia”. GPAAR turned the completed study over to Culpeper County authorities, who credited GPAAR for making the study possible and used it as the primary source of data and analysis for the comprehensive plan’s chapter on housing. The plan’s housing chapter included data on existing households and current housing stock, a housing market overview, future housing forecasts and a summary of future housing needs. The study found that the majority of existing households were comprised of empty nesters (approximately 35 percent) and individuals living alone (20 percent). Versel’s analysis also showed that in Culpeper County, homeowners greatly outnumber renters — 73 percent to 27 percent. The analysis concluded that during the next 25 years the county’s housing market will be driven by out-commuters and seniors, as well as traditional area working families. Versel estimates that the county — with a 2013 population of approximately 48,500 — will need approximately 400 housing units per year to keep up with demand. The report delivers a wealth of information that will guide future zoning and development strategies.

With the plan in hand, the next step is to start reviewing municipal codes to see what zoning revisions are necessary. It’s a complex, fluid and ongoing process that could take 18 to 24 months.

“We’re getting into the weeds slowly and methodically to see what zoning changes are needed to implement The strong relationships among the county, the REALTORS® and the university will also carry over into the plan implementation. housing opportunities,” Gaston said. “The county now translates the report into meaningful housing policy that benefits homeowners.”

The strong relationships among the county, the REALTORS® and the university not only supported the initial research, but will also carry over into the plan implementation. Gaston noted that all three parties continue to embrace the process and have a sense of ownership of the report and the data. The NAR grant both engages local stakeholders and facilitates independent research. The process and its results have also impressed decision makers outside the local area.

“Our members and the county administrators are really pleased at the outcome of this effort,” GPAAR Chief Executive Officer Debbie Werling explained in a NAR article. “Our association has gained more credibility with the county, and even with state officials who represent the county. That’s huge. Plus, other counties in the GPAAR footprint have heard what a fabulous tool and resource the housing needs study is to Culpeper County, and they are inquiring how a similar report can be completed for their area.”

Culpeper County may have been the first county to complete a comprehensive plan for housing by partnering with local REALTORS® and university experts, but it isn’t alone. Similar efforts are underway southeast of Culpeper County in the tidewater area of Virginia’s east coast. The Williamsburg Area Association of REALTORS® has collaborated with James City County and the College of William and Mary on research that is developing a similar housing report. In Newport News, the Virginia Peninsula Association of REALTORS® is working with municipal planners and local Christopher Newport University to review and revise comprehensive housing plans. Both research efforts are possible thanks to NAR grants.

News of the successful partnership continues to spread. Fauquier County, located adjacent to Culpeper County, was also recently awarded a NAR grant to conduct its own study. And the independent cities of Williamsburg and Hampton have expressed strong interest in applying for grants and conducting their own studies.

“We’re grateful that NAR continues to support this process in other communities,” Gaston explained. “These are all different communities and each grant is unique to the community, but the needs are universal. Each grant and report is different, but the goals are the same.”

Local stakeholders frequently share common goals. In Virginia, local leaders have learned that community partnerships make it possible for those stakeholders and policy makers to capitalize on local expertise, gain access to housing data that otherwise wouldn’t be available and facilitate reliable, independent research. That’s an approach that will not only provide a long view of housing, but empowers future collaborations and will enable long-term growth and prosperity.

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