Saturday, April 08, 2006

A conversation about Brentswood.

In my previous post, I outlined the controversy surrounding the Brentswood Community project, and expressed my opinion on the subject.

As I mentioned, there are a group of committed republicans in the community who from time to time have conversations via e-mail on subjects of importance to the community. I learn a great deal from these discussions, and thought I'd try an experiment where I share the contents of those discussions with the blogger community.

I asked the participants for permission to place their words in this blog, and I present below the discussion from those who assented.

The discussion was started by an e-mail referencing the vote in the PWC convention for a resolution opposing the development, which included a link to a Sunday Washington Post article Millions for Roads Aside, Planners Oppose I-66 Project, by Nikita Stewart.

The basis for the discussion was this response by John Schneider:

Sent: Monday, April 03, 2006 8:25 AM
Subject: RE: Planners Oppose Brentswood Project

Thanks for the article. This is really important.

1. Developers promise the moon and deliver three quarters of a mud hole. They leave their rickety LLCs holding the bag near the end of any development, and their main corporations move on to the profitable side of other things. There isn't much in Brentswood that says that the road improvements would be completed BEFORE the development started.

2. Developers are usually pretty shortsightedly greedy when it comes to the market. They purchase (an issue with that, too) land and start grinding the wheels... It is a long term thing, and when the building economy booms, like it has since 2002, they go to town. Unfortunately they usually miss the downturn and their plans and studies are based on overly optimistic assumptions.

The market is flattening out very rapidly, and I see that it will start south very shortly. We have an abundant number of existing single family and town homes for sale and they are not moving. The developers are running sales incentives right and left. The inescapable conclusion is that they are building too much for the available cash to purchase. Interest rates are up nearly 2 points from where they were during the boom times.

Brentswood would add to the downward pressure. Actually it might accelerate the spiral. For many of the same reasons, this county went through a serious market contraction between 1994 and 1998. Inventories went through the roof and prices fell drastically. Developers went belly up, and left folks holding lots of bags, as sales died, contracts expired and banks closed on houses because the developers were in receivership. Interest rates are key, here and the Federal Reserve doesn't seem to be slowing its steady increases.

3. Everyone talks about roads... the roads are getting built. Too slowly and haphazardly for sure, but hey are getting built. No one says a thing about schools, though. Brentsville District High is projected to have 1400 students next year from what I hear, that is capacity for that plant. Battlefield is pretty much full, and too large to begin with. It is starting to show the negative social pathologies of a school that has too large a student population and it is only two years old. We don't just need elementary schools. We are going to need more high schools... Brentsville needs a new school building and facilities (face it guys it is screamingly old.) but at the danger of converting it from a high quality AA school to a moshpit AAA school.

We really don't need anymore retail space. There are empty store fronts from failed businesses all around here.

What we need is a development pause. We need to concentrate on getting the roads finished, and the schools built to handle the existing population. Some of our subdivisions are now larger than small cities, and maybe some smarter political re-alignments and consolidations are necessary, but what is not necessary is a glut of high density housing, retail storefronts, doctors offices and professional buildings masquerading as "industrial business".

Turn Brenstwood into a park... some nice green buffer between Bristow Run and Gainesville. Linton Hall road is threatening to look like Old Bridge Road, and so is 28 south of the airport. Let us not repeat the mistakes that were made in Woodbridge and continue to make... when we moved there in 1988 Westridge was the last development on Davis Ford - except for the Oaks back in the woods..

Orderly development is good. Insane expansion will lead us to be what most of us moved "out here" to escape. High density, crowded, expensive, congested near-urban Fairfax.

Responses will be listed in comments below.


posted for anon by charles said...

Sent: Thursday, April 06, 2006 12:01 PM

As long as you are talking about visionaries, I'd like to suggest that the county begin making facilities available to those in the Gainesville area -- recreation centers and other facilities for our residents.

It is easier to go to Fairfax County to their parks and recreation facilities and adult education training (and pay the non-resident price), than to take a
hike down to the Woodbridge area.

When I drive to Fairfax , Loudon, or Warrenton for facilities that are lacking in the Gainesville area, my tax dollars is going to counties other than PWC -- while on the road I shop, eat, buy gas, etc. I'd much rather keep my tax dollars in the county where I live and I'd be a happier person to stay close to home.

posted for John Tate by charles said...

Sent: Thursday, April 06, 2006 7:22 PM

This will never happen as long as the "visionaries" curtail population growth in the western part of the county thus keeping the County government in the hands of those at the Eastern end. The eastern end of PW county has always been in control of the county, that's why they have all the facilities down there.

The so-called rural crescent took away any chance Western Prince William had of gaining power in the county government.

Growth in itself is not bad. Poor planning is bad. Growth is what has made this country great. Poor planning is what we get with "visionaries" who oppose all growth.

John Tate

posted for Tom Salmon by charles said...

Sent: Thursday, April 06, 2006 7:20 PM

I thought Republicans were relatively conservative. If we are, then we should not be encouraging government officials to tell builders when and where they can build for purely arbitrary reasons. What is going in Northern Virginia illustrates the problem with arbitrary political decisions. The cost of housing is going through the roof, and our network of expressways is insufficient to their task, but developers are not at fault. Government is. The basic reason for the problem is we have allowed arbitrary political decisions instead of economic principles to determine housing construction and road building decisions. Because of the demand, builders have constructed houses wherever the government will allow them to build. Because of demand, auto companies have produced plenty of automobiles. However, in spite of the demand, we do not have the roads we need. Because of the way we have set up the system, whether it builds the roads we need or not, our government still gets all the money it wants from us.

To fix the problem, we need to focus on the solution, principles that work, conservative principles, not our complaints. Given that the principles of supply and demand do work, we need to put them to work whenever we can. If want decent roads, for example, we may wish to fund their construction based upon user fees.

Instead of just complaining about one big project, we may wish to figure out how we can get our county leaders to come up with a county zoning plan that is based upon a set of coherent principles that actually work when put into practice. Consider, for example, the Rural Crescent. What is the basis for the way the rural crescent is zoned? What goals are accomplished? If a builder wants to build in the Rural Crescent on land that would otherwise be perfectly suitable, what good reason is there to say "no" except for the fact that the land is in the Rural Crescent? When, in the long run, an arbitrary decision is too easily overturned, what is the point of saying "no"?

Is the Rural Crescent suppose to be a big park? The idea of a parkland is a nice, and I guess our county supervisors are getting enough money from us to pay for one. However, the cost of land for parks is not cheap, and someone always pays. If you own the land, and you cannot sell it for what it should be worth, you pay.

Instead paying for parkland, I suggest we employ our zoning laws the achieve justifiable results. For various reasons, lots of land is not suitable for the construction of homes. Flood plains, for example, as a matter of principle are a poor choice for home construction. In addition, to protect our water supply, as a matter of principle we really should not be putting much of anything anywhere near wetlands, streams, creeks, or lakes. For safety and health reasons, residential and industrial areas should be separated. And so forth.

Of course, we are not going to get from here to there tomorrow. So what do we do now. Instead of just complaining about one project, I suggest we push for a moratorium on the approval of new housing projects. As I understand it, plenty of new housing is already approved.


posted for John Tate by charles said...

Sent: Thursday, April 06, 2006 7:36 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with much of [tom's] e-mail. You are exactly right in saying that buiders are not the problem, government is.

However, the answer is not a moratorium on new projects, but a return to sanity in how they are done.

My brother is a home builder in North Carolina and when they get approval for new homes the builder is responsible for building new roads and widening the existing roads. This is a system that works well in many parts of the country.

Unfortunately here in P.W. County, our elected officials refuse to use this system.

From everything I have read about the Brentswood proposal, it would be good for the county.

John Tate

posted for Tom Salmon by charles said...

Sent: Friday, April 07, 2006 7:21 AM

As a practical matter, we essentially have the same system in Prince William County that you describe as existing in North Carolina. In this area, home builders are required to provide the county proffers. The problem is that size of the proffers and how the proffers are spent is controlled by politics, not the economic forces of supply and demand. In North Carolina, where the scale of housing development is neither as large or extreme as it is in our area, the political system is able to respond well enough to keep people relatively happy. That obviously is not the case here.

The need for a moratorium is two-fold. First, the roads are a mess. Until we begin to see a reduction in traffic jams, we need to stop adding more cars. Second, and probably more important, we need political leverage.

On the issue of development, there are basically three political constituencies: pro development interests, Joe and Jane Citizen, and self-described environmentalists. Most of us belong to the Joe and Jane Citizen group. So long as developers do not do any discernable harm, Joe and Jane Citizen are content to live and let live. Unfortunately, many of us Joe and Jane Citizens are indifferent to or ignorant of politics. So, as a practical matter, to get sufficient political leverage to change the status quo, the Joe and Jane Citizen group has to ally itself with either the environmentalists or pro development interests. Thus the need for a moratorium. The threat or the existance of an actual moratorium would immediately make the Joe and Jane Citizen Group the pivotal player.

posted for Sorine Preli by charles said...

Sent: Friday, April 07, 2006 8:35 AM

To all - How long would this moratorium be and what would be done during that time?

We need to establish a solid comprehensive plan, with regular periodic review. Zoning applications such as Brentswood should not occur until the comprehensive plan system is in place AND working. We must get more PW citizens involved, as well.

Although I am not an advocate of home owners assns, these groups do put the brakes on high impact zoning proposals. I don't think we need to go to North Carolina for the right way to get our house in order. Brentswood should at least be deferred until we have a comprehensive plan review and a system that places the citizen/taxpayers at the top of the heap.

Sorine Preli

posted for John Schneider by charles said...

Sent: Friday, April 07, 2006 10:10 AM

The obvious answer is: NO not this time.

1. The promise of roads was false. It was merely front money to get the project started and wired in.

2. There are no schools in the deal... merely land for schools.
3. We will have barely finished with disruptive road building projects on Linton Hall, Wellington, and 28. Barely... and we will have another middle school full to the scuppers with kids from existing developments that are still under mushroom speed construction.

Please see:
" It will also provide sites inside the development for two elementary schools and will give land outside the development for a high school." - give land... super.. land.. We HAVE LAND... it is already there... Schools are expensive. They require TAXPAYER funds, beyond the immediate new construction. BTW.. Elementary school kids grow up really fast to become middle schoolers and high schoolers... While I am sure that some folks will leave... they will be replaced...

"The 6,800 homes will generate 1,396 elementary school students, requiring one entire school and two-thirds of another. There will also be 657 middle-schoolers, who would fill about half of a school, and 627 high school students -- a third of a school." If any lessons have been learned by now... one would be the overcrowding of schools... Trailer classrooms at brand new middle schools are pretty unforgivable.

We keep obsessing on roads (a bad enough problem to be sure) but too often we don't step back from the traffic jam to look at other "quality of life" issues. I went to Hayfield High in Fairfax County (Class of 1977). It used to be the far reaches of county Alexandria. My mother still lives in Lee District, and I work there two days a week. Now that area of Fairfax County is a congested mess. Everyone crawls everywhere all the time. I moved here in 1988 to get away from the high density housing, huge unwieldy schools, and the constant sound of traffic, 24x7.

I also work in Loudoun County once or twice a week. Take a trip up Gum Spring Road one day... look at the massive development happening... I am not remotely against development. Intelligent planning and zoning can agree wonderfully with business. But there is a bad condition where developers conduct shortsighted business, and elected officials get attracted by the money and prestige that comes from the interrelationship between the two.

I remember back when the county comprehensive plan was published. I laughed. Why? "No plan survives contact with the enemy" - von Moltke

But it is time for a pause. We really do need to complete what is already in the works, which is considerable, by the way, finish the roads, and conduct a full and honest assessment of what we want Prince William County to look like in 2010, 2015, and 2020.

By the way, for those who are concerned about voting patterns... a useful nugget of knowledge from the Bush election maps of 2000 and 2004 is in order.

As population density rises, so does the number of Democrat voters.

Remember: Developers are like Beanie Baby dealers - the rewards of collecting look great... until time leaves you with a couple of boxes loaded with cloth bags of plastic beads and a lighter wallet.

John W. Schneider, III
Bristow Run

posted for John Tate by charles said...

Sent: Friday, April 07, 2006 10:48 AM

I agree. It is the politicians fault -- not the developers.

The proffers should and could be used for roads. As I understand it, this is exactly what the Brentswood Project would do.

The politicians should welcome development that also fixes our roads. Yet they continue to allow ill-thought development using the proffers for parks, open land, bike trails etc. And then turn down a project that would help solve our transportation problems.

John Tate

posted for John Schneider by charles said...

Sent: Friday, April 07, 2006 12:52 PM

1. The developers have tended to own the politicians in this state so stating that the two are separate is er um... inaccurate.

2. The project offers not one thin dime to develop roads... just a loan... so that the taxpayer can fund it later... I also bet you that insisting that the roads be complete first won't go over real big with them, either.

3. The project offers more congestion, construction, (can't go anywhere anymore without following a lumbering dump truck) more crowded schools, and more concrete, asphalt, and ultimately higher taxes to pay for the growing burden. I can't wait to see Brentswood and Nissan Pavilion concert traffic... yeesh...

Time to think is required, not to put business on a pedestal and all politicians in the same badboy/badgirl box. The community, through the government is supposed to take these decisions, not just step aside and get run over.

John Schneider