Thursday, December 14, 2006

County Can't Stop Most Development

My column from last Thursday, regarding Brentsville Supervisor Wally Convington's moratorium on new rezonings.

County Can't Stop Most Development:

Potomac News
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Corey Stewart, the new chairman of Prince William's Board of Supervisors, opposes new residential development. Wally Convington, Brentsville supervisor, proposes a one-year delay in rezoning requests. Woodbridge Supervisor Hilda Barg supports action to ease overcrowding of roads and schools. Neabsco's John Jenkins wants to find legal ways to slow growth.

But recently, the board approved 1,487 new residential units at Harbor Place. Tuesday they considered 306 new units off Hastings Avenue. The proposed moratorium only covers rezoning requests, and won't stop development under current zoning, or which has already been approved. And nobody really expects to slow new construction.

The sad fact is the county is powerless to stop development. Decisions made years, even decades ago by previous boards opened the floodgates to rampant development, and this board has no legal way to stop it. We want to curtail new development until the roads and infrastructure are ready, but Virginia law does not allow the county to do so. While we provide 40 percent of the tax revenue to the state, we only get an unfair 18 percent back.

So if we want new roads, we have to pass bond referendums and build them ourselves. And if we want to stop development, we can do little more than pass what Jenkins says is a "largely symbolic" plan to send a message to Richmond.

Covington admits as much, saying, "This is something we need to do to get the governor's and the General Assembly's attention." His proposal includes directives to Governor Tim Kaine and the legislature to pass the "Adequate Public Facilities" legislation, which died last year. This legislation would allow the county to deny zoning requests if the current roads, schools, and other facilities can't support it.

Kaine promised this legislation when running for governor, but after Delegate Bob Marshall submitted the bill, Kaine withdrew his support under pressure from developers. Without a new law, the county supervisors can do little more than beg developers to offer donations (called proffers) in exchange for consideration of rezoning requests.

The problem with the proffer system is that, being voluntary, it requires the county to give something of value to a developer in exchange for money to upgrade roads, schools, parks, and other infrastructure. This means approving requests for new residential units. For example, the Harbor Station rezoning was approved because it included $58 million in proffers, none of which would be available without the rezoning.

Unfortunately, the proffers never cover the costs of the proposed developments. But if the rezoning requests are denied, the county gets no money at all. Corey Stewart has proposed increasing the proffer amounts, but since they are voluntary, there's a limit to how much the county can "request" before the developers will turn to the courts. And with our current laws, developers have the upper hand in a court case.

For example, in 2003 Loudoun County passed a restrictive rezoning law. In response, more than 200 lawsuits were filed, and in 2005 the Virginia Supreme Court threw out the law. No county wants to chance a court loss. Instead, they play what amounts to a high-stakes game of chicken, bargaining with developers to extract as much as possible without driving them to court.

This is an insane way to control development in a county with over a third of a million people. It is a travesty that Kaine and the legislature did not pass laws last year to help curb out-of-control growth. It's a shame Kaine is trying to blame this on the lack of a tax increase, which would only help mitigate the harm of growth, not solve the problem.

Our local delegation to the House and Senate support giving the county the power needed to control growth. The governor needs to live up to his promises, and the "good old boys" in the Senate need to stop patting themselves on the back and pass this law, rather than holding us hostage for money for their own pet projects.

Wally Covington has done a good thing putting this issue on the front burner, but now we need the State to do its job and give us the tools we need.

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