2002: Social and policy aspects of development in Williamsburg

Melanie Marzolf and Maureen Feldbaum (Sociology)

The ecological and social systems of the Virginia Peninsula are changing rapidly: commercial, industrial and tourist development is combining with extensive housing subdivision construction to alter the land where we live, study and work. Decisions made each day in cities, counties, developers' offices, and even one's own home, yard or driveway are shaping the future of the land and the health of the Chesapeake Bay rivers that drain and define the Peninsula. The quality of the water in the Chesapeake Bay is dependent on the water flowing into it, which is in turn dependent on the behaviors of the 15 million people who live in Peninsula watersheds.

What will the Williamsburg Area look like in five or twenty-five years? To understand the direction of the changes and to predict what our area will look like in the near and longer-term future requires analysis of the demographic trends, political structures, and economic factors shaping development in the region.

With matching support from the Virginia Environmental Endowment and Board of Visitors member L. Clifford Schroeder, four faculty and eight undergraduate students from the College of William and Mary's Environmental Studies program have set out in the summer of 2002 to bring together a new interdisciplinary approach to the issue of development and watersheds.

This study is focused on the place we know best--the section of Williamsburg draining into Lake Matoaka through College Creek and other tributaries--as a laboratory to model changes that occur as development encroaches on natural systems. Lake Matoaka is one of the oldest man-made lakes in the New World. Water from some 1400 acres of total land area drains into the lake, where shifting land use over time has altered ecosystem structure. Aside from its old age, however, the lake and its surrounding watershed are similar in many respects to the thousands of impoundments that are found on the coastal plain and throughout Virginia.

Because the College Creek watershed has experienced a long and well-documented chronicle of land use since colonial times, the current status of the watershed and lake as measured by environmental monitoring can be placed in historical contexts. Current land use in the College Creek watershed includes land developed for the College of William and Mary, for the community hospital, and for retail and residential use. A majority of the watershed, however, is second-growth forest owned by the college (the College Woods), so that students have ready access to the forests, streams and wetlands that dominate the watershed. In 1996, the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary designated approximately 300 acres of the College Woods as a Nature Preserve for recreation and research.

From an ecosystem perspective, the College Woods includes habitat for two federally-listed threatened plant species (whorled pogonia and swamp pink) plus a number of "disjunct" species whose geographic distribution includes the Blue Ridge Mountains and isolated locations on the coastal plain. Further, the lake is fed by five small tributary streams that are essentially pristine, allowing their current status to be monitored and compared to future development and to more "disturbed" stream systems in nearby watersheds. Three of these streams contain small populations of least brook lamprey eels-known from only 15 streams in the state of Virginia-and large populations of a potentially new species of invertebrate amphipod. In short, the college campus includes a diverse assemblage of natural resources available for academic study.

This study also includes the Powhatan Creek watershed, located northwest of the college campus in James City County. A larger watershed at 23 square miles and ranked number one in biodiversity for the Lower Peninsula, 10.7% (2.4 sq. mi.) of the watershed is area protected by the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act. Another 40% of the land area within the watershed already is developed and substantial portions of the watershed are zoned for future development. The Powhatan Creek watershed has been the focus of extensive research and debate as environmentalists seek to protect it from over development.

Land use changes occurring in watersheds of greater Williamsburg cannot be understood without putting them in the larger context of change in the region. After describing changes occurring locally we move to compare and apply them at larger scales. We review patterns of urban growth that have occurred in the region and what has been done about them. In addition, we will look at proposals on practical alternatives to current approaches to development, reviewing "best practices" utilized in other development around the Chesapeake Bay and other sensitive watersheds.

PDF of Development and Watersheds in Greater Williamsburg: A Guide for Citizens and Students

Survey Results: Development and Water in Williamsburg, James City, and York Counties