With growing numbers of residents commuting to Richmond and a new reservoir planned for its northern extremity, rural Cumberland County leaders found themselves facing significant changes.

Instead of passively watching the area turn into something unrecognizable, Cumberland County asked Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development for help in planning the future of an area around the reservoir, slated for construction in the vicinity of Cobbs Creek.

The Office of Economic Development is now coordinating the work of a team of faculty and students from Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to the office, participants include Virginia Tech’s Community Design Assistance Center, Urban Affairs and Planning program in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, Center for Housing Research, and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “The partnership between Virginia’s senior land grant university and Virginia’s urban university will help our county think through how to maintain our rural character as we grow,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman William Osl.

Cumberland is in the heart of Virginia’s Central Piedmont, about a 40-minute drive from Richmond, Charlottesville, and Lynchburg. The county is home to 9,800 residents and includes part of the town of Farmville, which is home to Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College.

While the reservoir is located in the northern end of the county, its scale means it will have implications for all of Cumberland relating to development patterns and government finances. The Office of Economic Development Associate Director John Provo termed the county’s proactive approach, which involves recognizing the opportunities before them and taking action now, as uniquely forward thinking and a model for other rural communities on the fringe of metropolitan areas.

Work with Cumberland began this past term with Associate Professor Diane Zahm’s land-use planning studio. Her students from the Urban Affairs and Planning program researched best practices in development around reservoirs and worked with county leaders and civic organizations to prepare a community participation plan that will guide the rest of the project. They also joined community residents at the county’s annual Patriot Day Festival to share information about the project and survey festival-goers about their preferences for types of development.

“I appreciated the opportunity to put our classroom experiences to the test,” said graduate student Marc Oliphant. Rising senior Alana Garner said “the experience was wonderful preparation for working in the real world.”

Over the summer, Cumberland residents will be engaged in a Community Member Photo Identification Project. They will be asked to document existing strengths in their community, or represent things they would both like to add or change by taking photos and scouring magazines, newspapers, and on-line resources for images. At a countywide summit in the fall, participants will share these images with each other and work to develop ideas with faculty experts experienced in rural planning, landscape architecture, economic development, and housing.

The community will work on coming to a consensus about priorities for development and directing the faculty on ideas they would like to see studied further. The final product anticipated from those subsequent research projects will be a sound, feasible, sustainable, and publicly supported set of concepts the county can market to developers.