by Dan Roem, Gainesville Times

6-12 February 2013, pp. A1, A4

“Determining the future of land use and development in Prince William County depends on who’s making the pitch.

“Last week, four experts in the field shared their thoughts during a forum in Manassas sponsored by the local non-profit Committee of 100.

“Moderator Henry Bibber, a former planning director for Prince William, posed the question of whether the county’s vision is slipping when it comes to future development.

“Two indicated that even if there are problems, there is plenty of potential for better local employment and quality-of-life enhancements as the county continues to expand.

“One, however, did not.  The other [the fourth expert] focused his comments on eastern-end infrastructure needs.

“Economist Bob Pugh, a financial planner, Gainesville business owner and co-founder of [Prince William] Citizens for Balanced Growth [PWCBG], was not optimistic.’

” ‘I am here for the bad news tonight,’ said Pugh.  ‘We abandoned our vision about a decade ago.’

“The statistic in question centered [on] the ideal ratio of 75 percent residential and 25 percent commercial development.  The proper balance is necessary to keep a stable revenue base amid market changes.

“In Prince William, development is now more than 80 percent residential and Pugh questioned whether the county could ever realistically achieve its goal.

“Pugh argued that residential development comes at a net revenue loss for the county of about $900 per unit and contributes to higher tax rates.

“That is because services provided to residents — such as police, roads, and schools — cost more than the money brought into the county by real estate taxes and development proffers.

“Meanwhile, he added that most of the incoming commercial development is ‘going to be low-wage retail’ jobs.

” ‘We’re going to look at a structural deficit of $1.6 million,’ argued Pugh.

“Sherman Patrick, a land use planner [and developer] with the firm Compton and Duling, who formerly worked in the Prince William County Planning Office, countered Pugh’s claim.

“Residences worth more than $385,000 are actually revenue-positive for the county, he said.

“For one thing, a more expensive home doesn’t have more residents or better services than a less-expensive one; it just generates more tax dollars.

“John Karhnak, chairman of the Woodbridge Potomac Communities Civic Association, recommended that, in order to bring more jobs to the eastern end of the county, redeveloping the Route 1 corridor is a ‘major issue.’

“That includes transporation, such as road improvements from Quantico to Featherstone Drive, and bringing Metro out to eastern Prince William.

“In fact, he noted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) balked at setting up its headquarters in Prince William in part because the county is not Metro-accessible.

“Regarding the county’s future plans in general, he said that ‘we have lots of work that’s been done’ in the planning department, ‘and we need to take advantage’ of that.

“Likewise, the county’s economic development director Jeffery Kaczmarek, advocated for a ‘reverse-commuter’ train that takes workers from Washington, D.C. and its suburbs to Prince William in the morning.

“However, when he mentioned that one transportation solution for the eastern half of the county would be a bi-county parkway, linking Gainesville to Loudoun, many audience members grumbled.

“As for the current state of county employment, Kaczmarek honed in on the idea that the market seeks more Class A office space.

“He stated that the county’s office vacancy rates are actually ‘pretty low’ already and that Fairfax County ‘has twice as much vacant office space’ as Prince William.

“One area of dispute between Pugh and Patrick came regarding the development of townhouses in the area near the former Dominion Racetrack in Manassas.

“Noting that the county originally zoned the land for commercial use, Patrick declared that the Board of Coutny Supervisors is ‘not obligated to change the Comprehensive Plan’ to adjust to a developer’s will.

“Patrick suggested instead that there may be ‘too much’ property in the county zoned for commercial uses:  ‘well beyond what we could ever expect to see in the future.’

“Such a claim is nonsense, according to Pugh.

” ‘I disagree very strongly with you,’ he said.

“Saying the county should hold out for a business to come along, Pugh added, ‘Why do we have to  take townhouses? …  We’re going to have to have some better planning.’

“According to Kaczmarek, the dilemma is whether the county should take an offer on the table or wait for something that may not come any time soon.

” ‘It’s driven by the market more than anything else,’ he said.”