Today’s Washington Post has a great front page article that discusses some growth and development issues relevant to Charlottesville-Albemarle (W. Post 2/8/07:

Area Officials Struggle To Fit Lid on Growth

).

“To hear some activists and local officials in Virginia tell it, the key to slowing rampant growth is to follow the lead of many Maryland counties: Ban development where roads and schools are crowded. But here is what that method has accomplished in Anne Arundel County…development is
being pushed to more rural parts of the state less suited to handle it.”

That is the concern raised most frequently by County Supervisor David Slutzky.  At the

recent ASAP forum on Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs

, Mr. Slutzky said, “We know we’ve got 5% of the County allocated to growth and 95% of the County is designated rural area and it’s not supposed to be having growth happen in it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed driving out Garth Road, but growth’s happening in it. It’s a serious problem, one that concerns me greatly.”

We are certainly building homes in Albemarle’s rural fields, farms and forests.  However, and here is where I would like to draw a contrast to Anne Arundel County, MD and the first points made in the Washington Post article–we have been doing so at a consistent rate for over a decade, about 300 homes a year [

see chart on this post from last Summer

].  Our Board of Supervisors would all certainly like to see that number as close to zero as possible.  How we best do that is at the heart of the debate about rural area protection strategies.

Instead, where we see dramatic increases is in the

amount of housing approved in the growth areas, much of which has not been built

.  We simply don’t have the population growth facing these localities around Washington, D.C. and there is apparently not a market for these homes in Charlottesville-Albemarle to be built quickly.  One of the ramifications of that market condition is that the affordable housing that has been proffered (over 600 units in Albemarle) is also not getting built.

Finally, the article has a good summary of the politics of growth before the Virginia General Assembly.  Here is a lengthy quote which covers a number of the f

requently asked questions about the powers of local government, proffers, and impact fees

:

In Richmond, Kaine again proposed legislation that would make it easier for Virginia counties to reject requests to rezone properties for more intense development if officials determine that it would overwhelm local roads. The legislation was blocked recently under opposition from developers but might resurface in another form.

But even if the proposal is revived, there are doubts among some officials about how much Kaine’s plan would accomplish, since the legislation essentially spelled out a power that many local officials say they already have.

The proposal’s supporters say it would help anyway because, by clarifying local authority, it would give counties more confidence to reject requests without fear of being taken to court by developers.

“You can say no, but it’s always a crapshoot,” said Loudoun Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge). “The more arrows we have in the quiver, the better off we are.”

Similarly, builders oppose the proposal because they fear that the broader language it contains will make it easier for local officials to oppose rezonings without clear evidence of traffic troubles. It lowers the bar for rejections “to an arbitrary or capricious standard,” said Michael Toalson, lobbyist for the powerful Home Builders Association of Virginia. “You don’t have to defend it — you can just say, ‘Nope, we don’t want it.’ ”

But the legislation would have no effect on the expanse of potential residential development that can already occur under existing zoning, also known as by-right construction. In Loudoun, there are about 35,000 lots that can still be built; in Prince William, 26,500; and in Spotsylvania County, 23,000.

[Note: That figure is about 10,000 lots in Albemarle County’s rural areas]

What Virginia really needs, some local officials say, are regulations like the “adequate public facilities” ordinances used in many Maryland counties. Under those ordinances, counties can impose moratoriums on by-right construction in certain areas if they determine that there aren’t enough roads, schools or other services, and they can also assess per-house “impact fees” on by-right development to pay for infrastructure.

In Virginia, most counties can only seek money from developers in the form of “proffers” for rezoning requests, not for by-right development. Stafford and Spotsylvania counties have state permission to assess impact fees on already zoned land, but with constraints. In the past three years, Stafford has assessed fees on only a few hundred of 9,000 homes built, for $1,600 to $5,300 a home.

The transportation funding package being pushed by many Republicans includes an impact fee provision, but local officials say that it is too limited to be useful, because it applies only to a fraction of land. Prince William’s legislative liaison said the fees would cover only about 200 homes built in the county each year.

The crux of the problem, said Stafford Supervisor Peter J. Fields (D-George Washington), is that if counties really tried to assess fees on new exurban homes for the full costs of their impact, they would run into the tens of thousands of dollars, beyond what most would consider reasonable. But somehow, he said, the state must find a way to regulate construction on land that is already zoned.

“No other change . . . is going to make a difference in our built environment or in the cost to taxpayers, and until we do that, I am loath to congratulate ourselves for having done something for the problem,” he said.

Brian Wheeler

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