by Alec MacGillis, The Washington Post
6 December 2006, p. A1
“The map of land available for new homes in the Washington area shrank yesterday as officials in three suburban counties took major steps toward restricting development in the strongest statement yet of the anti-growth sentiment that has seized the region.
“In Virginia, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted for a one-year freeze on most subdivisions to protest the lack of transportation funding from the General Assembly. And in Loudoun County, the Board of Supervisors approved a long-debated move to restrict new housing in the rural western section.
“In Maryland, Montgomery County’s new council president introduced legislation to impose a temporary moratorium on most large developments to allow for an assessment of land-use policies that some say have become too pro-business.
“Together, the actions underscore that the pendulum of public sentiment has swung strongly against development in one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. Local governments that only a few years ago boasted of their burgeoning economies are now billing themselves as guardians of open space and eliciting howls from builders, some of whom may challenge the measures in court.
“But whether yesterday’s measures mean real relief for residents and commuters who are demanding more controlled growth in a region riven by sprawl and traffic congestion remains to be seen. Advocates of ‘smart-growth’ policies question whether the steps taken yesterday will accomplish nearly as much as promised in directing development to the areas best suited to absorb it.
” ‘Of course it’s appropriate to link land use and transportation. The question is, how do you get it done?’ said Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. ‘I don’t think just shutting things down is the right way to go.’
“As greater Washington has expanded, so has the public clamor for better growth and transportation planning. The region’s traffic congestion now ranks among the country’s worst. Loudoun and Prince William are among the fastest-growing counties in the country, having added a combined 160,000 people in the past five years.
“Suburban areas closer to Washington, such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties, are struggling with how to focus growth in already developed ‘infill’ areas without overwhelming roads and schools.
“Recent elections have reflected the anti-development tide. Last year, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) was elected in Virginia on a platform to better link transportation and land use. Last month, Democrat Isiah ‘Ike’ Leggett won the race for Montgomery executive after saying that he would do more than his opponents to slow growth. And Republican Corey A. Stewart was elected chairman of the Prince William board after accusing his opponent of being soft on developers.
“The newly elected officials have wasted little time in acting on their campaign pledges, but those tracking them say that their actions might be designed more for public consumption than for real impact.
“In Prince William, Stewart and his allies on the board say that a freeze on subdivision rezonings is needed to get the attention of Richmond lawmakers who haven’t provided the transportation funding that local officials say they need. But the move’s backers acknowledge that it is intended mostly as a symbolic action, because, with the housing market slowing, there are few major rezonings on the horizon. New homes that don’t require rezonings could still be built.
“The moratorium nonetheless provoked sharp opposition yesterday from some builders, who said that the freeze would halt several projects in their tracks, hurt the local building community and result in a housing shortage down the line.
” ‘It’s going to affect [builders’] ability to be in a position to keep moving forward and stick to their business plans,’ said Shawn Cody, president of Cherokee Homes, a small-scale custom builder. ‘A significant portion of our county is based on this industry.’
“Ed Risse, a land-use consultant based in Warrenton, said that the moratorium could have the unwanted effect of bogging down the county’s land-use policy in court. What Prince William and the rest of Northern Virginia really need is more control over funding and building roads, he said.
” ‘It’s nice that Prince William’s evolved to the point where it can put its foot down, but it will take some reallocation of powers for transportation planning until something happens,’ he said.
“In Loudoun, the new building rules, which would reduce by about half the number of homes allowed in the west, were the culmination of a drawn-out process to replace a 2003 downzoning that was struck down on technical grounds by the state Supreme Court. Supporters of the compromise passed yesterday say that it would go a long way toward protecting the county’s rolling piedmont.
“But smart-growth advocates are much less enthusiastic, saying that the rules, although stricter than the limit of one home per three acres allowed now in the west, will allow many more homes than what was struck down in court.
” ‘This is not a compromise. This is considerable density for a rural area,’ said Malcolm Baldwin, a Loudoun sheep farmer and member of the Piedmont Environmental Council, a slow-growth group. ‘It’s a backward step in terms of what the board tried to do in its last life.’
“In Montgomery, the temporary moratorium, which has a long way to go before becoming law, would cover all major residential and commercial projects except those near Metro stations. In reassessing its land-use rules, the county is expected to consider an approach used in other Maryland counties: banning new homes in areas without the school or road capacity to handle more residents.
“That approach, based on the state’s ‘adequate public facilities’ ordinance, had been adjusted in 2003 by former county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) in favor of charging developers’ fees to pay for added infrastructure.
“Knaap, of the University of Maryland, released a study this year criticizing the adequate-facilities approach for pushing new homes out of developed parts of the state and into more rural areas. It would be better, he said, if the state and counties built more schools in developed areas rather than cut off new homes.
“But with many residents in Montgomery saying that growth was too rapid under Duncan, that approach is now back on the table. To Susan Matlick, director of the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, it’s an unfortunate reversal.
” ‘As far as we’re concerned, it’s just pandering to the electorate,’ she said. ‘It’s to show they’re doing something, without any real relation to the facts.’ “