The larger and more densely populated a community is, the more byzantine and stringent its regulations become. This statement may not quite pass as a truism, but it comes close, especially in a country with a governing system as decentralized as the United States. Simply put, the principles that characterize individual liberty become harder to maintain when people live in large, dense, and variegated communities. From a land use perspective, this tendency owes a great deal to nuisance laws; people actively pursuing self-interest on their properties in a high density area run a far greater risk that their activities may offend the sense and sensibilities of their neighbors, who are in turn pursuing self-interest on their property. It may entirely be the right of a household to build a fire pit in its back yard upon which to cook a goat; however, the smell of goat meat is deeply foreign and unappealing to the olfactory systems of most people in the United States. Therefore, in urban settings, a goat on a rotisserie in a back yard is likely to result in alarm calls to local law enforcement; if this happens frequently enough, it may prompt the local council to amend legislation on outdoor cooking practices. Repeat this same situation in a small town and it is far less likely to raise ire, not only because fewer people are going to remonstrate from the roasted goat in general, but they are far less likely to live close enough to even smell it. And should the rotisserie goat take place in an entirely rural, unincorporated area, it’s unlikely that a civic body to either legislate or enforce such a minor consideration even exists. Expanding upon the understanding of a nuisance, we could apply this same logic for a business owner installing an electric billboard exceeding a certain lumens, or public works department applying a jackhammer to concrete after 9pm for five nights in a row. Almost organically, the array of regulations will inevitably grow in a more urban setting. Loosely applying Andres Duany’s transect model, as one ventures farther from the urban core, from urbanized suburbs to auto-dependent exurbs and then to the rural fringe, the legislative infrastructure rarefies along with the settlement patterns. Which gives us Dumfries.
It should come as no surprise that a subdivision in Dumfries, Virginia would reveal some subtle differences from its more urban counterparts, despite the fact that, at first blush, it looks like a pretty normal middle-class housing development.
For those who don’t know Dumfries—which I presume to include just about anyone who has never lived in Virginia (as well as many native-born Virginians who live elsewhere)—it’s actually a perfect demonstration of the “rural fringe” that I referenced at the conclusion of that lengthy first paragraph. This town of approximately 5,000 sits approximately 30 miles south of Washington, DC, which makes it entirely reachable for those willing to commute through the excruciating gridlock on Interstate 95. Dumfries is also only about five miles from such well-established and urbanized communities as Woodbridge, fully within the orbit of the famously wealthy northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Therefore, although Dumfries looks and feels very much like a small town, its denizens can make it to shopping nodes that feature an REI, Wegmans, or IKEA within about a ten-minute drive. (I list these stores specifically because, though not high-end per se, they would never locate anywhere but a sector within a large metro where the income is well above median.) Furthermore, Dumfries is the last incorporated town before one approaches the heavily guarded Entry Control Point to Marine Corps Base Quantico, the largest Marine training center in the country, and a far more familiar name to outsiders than Dumfries itself. Keeping in mind the nodes within easy reach of Dumfries, only the most jaded New Yorker would call this town “middle of nowhere”. It’s a heartbeat away from shopping and employment nodes.
Nonetheless, a scan of subtle details within this very normal subdivision in Dumfries (I believe it’s called “The Knolls at Dumfries”) would make it hard for it to betray its small town roots. Take the photo above and pair it with the one below.
Notice anything about the scale? This road may not seem unusual, but it’s much wider than one would expect to see in the tony NoVA suburbs of Fairfax or Arlington Counties. It’s a simple market explanation: no developer working in expensive Fairfax is gong to devote so much land to the right-of-way, a ribbon of pavement that is itself a sunk cost, requiring routine maintenance while conferring little added value to the subdivision as a whole. Dumfries is comparatively cheap and does not warrant such sensitive design; in fact, the developer might even indulge some prospective residents of the subdivision, who actually like the wide roads.
This subdivision offers plenty of other examples of the liberties afforded to developers working within a less stringent regulatory environment.
Sidewalks, for example, are inconsistent. Much of this subdivision has them, but it lapses. This could have something to do with the age of the development: it was common through the late 1960s up until the mid 1980s for single-family detached housing developments of medium or low density to neglect sidewalks altogether; they simply didn’t register as a priority during that auto-infatuated era, even in mature, heavily populated districts like Fairfax County. By the late 1980s, municipalities were recognizing the imprudence of neglecting a core component of pedestrianism; they either began mandating sidewalks (first on one side of the street, then on both). Over time developers decided they were a worthy investment and built them regardless. In urban settings, that is. Small towns? Not so much. I’m not sure where this Dumfries subdivision fits in, but it remains common for small-town and rural settings not to mandate sidewalks, and the developers opt not to build them.
Here’s another, more substantial curiosity within The Knolls at Dumfries:
The road sign states: “Private Road Not Public Maintained”. So buried within the public rights-of-way of this conventional subdivision are roads not within the Town of Dumfries’ Department of Public Works. Such roads typically belong to homes to which they provide access, as an extension of their property. The photos below show how such a configuration plays out, again in this same Dumfries subdivision.
Note the sizable gap of vacant lawn adjacent to the gray house whose side appears more prominently in the second photo. The tall grass nearly conceals the most critical feature:
It’s another one of those private drives.
The Knolls at Dumfries offers a few of them, and they provide access to more than one home, meaning it’s not just a driveway. It’s the responsibility of the homes that depend upon it for access, and buried within their titles is some sort of shared maintenance agreement, since, as indicated from these signs, this is outside the jurisdiction of the Town of Dumfries. A Google Map offers a good enough estimation of how these private roads relate to the plat and site plan:
Within this subdivision, the layout of Tebbs Lane resulted in sizable patches of land that are not easily accessible, which I have outlined in purple. No doubt they belonged to the large original parcel before this development (which I’d suspect was a large agricultural tract), and the subdivision that yielded the sellable lots and the rights-of-way left these gaping holes, due to the road design. The developer could have installed a cul-de-sac to access these homes, but the expense in building another wide asphalt road that only served three homes (to the west) or two homes (to the east) might not have been worth the additional cost. So it became a private road, which the developer initially designed and constructed, but though the developer eventually converted the road to the homeowners through the deed developed during the initial sale of the lots. And any homeowner who purchases one of these lots and builds a home there will be responsible for the long-term maintenance of the private drive. Additionally, it’s usually not easy for homes like this to get mail or parcel delivery; the US Postal Service can refuse delivery to a home at the end of a private road if the carrier perceives the conditions are unsafe.
Here’s what the private drive leading to two homes looks like. The homes are barely visible there in the background.
The condition of the private drive is acceptable, but it isn’t great. It could use some TLC. But the real clincher for road maintenance is likely to occur at some other time than a muggy, verdant summer day like the one in these photos. Those of us who grew up in a higher density community than Dumfries can’t likely relate, because private drives such as these are extremely rare. But imagine this same strip of asphalt after a heavy winter snowstorm. Sure, such events are uncommon in coastal Virginia but not unheard of. Snow removal would not be the responsibility of the Town of Dumfries; these homeowners would have to do it themselves or pay for such a service. And though a blizzard event is likely only to occur about twice per decade, far more frequent are icy conditions that make driving up that private road hazardous. It doesn’t help that it’s on a slope of at least 5% grade, as evidenced by this alternative camera angle.
These conditions make these private drives unusual and much harder to market. Essentially, the homes built off these stubby little roads have conditions resembling those of rural America—where lots are often large and driveways can be as long as the homeowner wants—but without the cloistered pricy one can achieve out in the country. Essentially they get farmstead-like driveways for a few of the homes, baked in to a suburban-style subdivision. In a more urbanized area (like the heavily populated suburbs in Fairfax and Arlington County), local subdivision regulations will strive to prevent subdivision and roadway design that allow private drives to happen, up to and potentially including not approving the subdivision if it’s deemed too ungainly, or the ability for private landowners to maintain their drive seems uncertain. In a town the size of Dumfries, this is far less likely to prove a hurdle. And so we witness private drives.
But here in this subdivision, we encounter another ungainly parcel configuration that rarely happens in urban settings: the flag lot. In the featured Google Map, I outlined it in green. It earns its name from its shape: the main portion of the parcel (with the house on it) is the flag, the skinny access “pole” is the drive that links it to the public right-of-way (Tebbs Lane in this case). These parcels emerge when a tract of land does not directly abut a road for access; the developer must either design a narrow “pole” to grant access, the landowners must negotiate and purchase land from one of its neighbors to create the “pole”, or perhaps they can negotiate an access easement with one of the landowners whose properties directly face Tebbs Lane. It’s an undesirable condition because it forces the design of long, cumbersome driveways, but it’s a common occurrence in more rural areas where the road network is less dense. Truth be told, the other examples outlined in purple on the map function more or less as flag lots, with the core difference that they feature a private drive that serves two or three homes, instead of just one. (The “flag” got subdivided further.) The flag lot outlined in green is just a single home with a very long driveway; and just like any other driveway, the homeowner must maintain it. Keeping this in mind, it’s no small wonder why flag lots have earned such a stigma. But in rural America, they’re everywhere.
I’ve written about parcels with ungainly shapes in the past, And I imagine what I discovered here at The Knolls at Dumfries is a dime-a-dozen occurrence in most of Virginia, outside the major urban areas. But those city folks—or at least the legislators they elect, or administrative staff (planning and zoning) that they help appoint—will probably judge this as bizarre. Urban America offers enough collectivist oversight to preclude this sort of thing; additionally, the land values are such that, as a general rule, developers can’t justify it. But in Dumfries, they can. Lower land values allow considerable flexibility and experimentation, for better or worse—the worse being the poorly conceived outcomes we expect when a developer is looking for the cleanest path to make a buck. Applying classically liberal principles to land use, in this case I’m quite content with letting the city be the city and the town be the town. Of course, it’s possible that the Northern Virginia suburbanites, pushed further from the core by the unreasonable, overcooked home prices, may eventually engulf an old community like Dumfries. Judging from the fact that Dumfries had barely 500 people in 1950 and has increased over tenfold since then, the city-slicker encroachment has probably already begun. Expect stricter subdivision regs in the future, Dumfriesians!