Does a balanced-growth approach to county land use issues, or the lack thereof, affect your everyday life? You bet it does.

You might be trying to negotiate your way home through some of the worst traffic you’ve ever seen, or paying a property tax bill that seems excessive relative to government services received, or wondering why your job is in another county and not your own. Perhaps property values and your neighborhood are declining and/or an increasing number of homes in your neighborhood are vacant, indicating an oversupply of housing stock — at the same time that brand new subdivisions are being built nearby. Maybe you’re concerned about how overcrowded or understaffed your children’s public schools are and how often school redistricting occurs. Perhaps you feel a sense of loss as you notice how green space and parklands are rapidly disappearing from the county.

It’s important to realize that land use decisions made by your current Board of County Supervisors and previous boards (usually in the form of rezonings and long-term land use planning) have a profound impact on traffic, taxes, commercial growth, property values, public schools, and environmental and other quality-of-life issues. That said, if elected county officials sometimes seem unresponsive to the desire of their constituents for a more balanced approach to residential growth, then think of the disproportionate, corrupting influence that aggressive groups with very deep pockets and much at stake — such as large residential land developers — can have when they implement well-funded, slick PR campaigns to influence local land use decisions, or when they give hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to county politicians.

In recent years, residential development has often been approved by the Board of County Supervisors with little or no consideration given to its impact on important public priorities. Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth believes that the best way to reduce traffic congestion, keep property taxes as low as possible, attract jobs & commercial growth, preserve property values & protect existing neighborhoods from decline, eliminate school overcrowding & constant school redistricting, protect the environment & remaining green space, and ensure a high quality of life in Prince William County is to review developers’ housing proposals in light of their impact on these important priorities. To achieve balanced growth, county land-use policies and Board of County Supervisors land use decisions must ensure that:

  • Adequate road/transportation and utility infrastructure, as well as public education capabilities are in place at the time that residential or commercial developments are built (or as they’re needed, instead of years after they’re first needed.) Important prerequisites for achieving this are comprehensive long-term land use planning with broad-based citizen input, insistence on meaningful developer proffers and/or impact fees as appropriate, and prudent and ethical use of county bond financing.
  • Commercial development at least keeps pace with residential development. In recent years, the exact opposite has been occurring in the county as commercial properties have consistently declined as a percentage of the tax base. This is an unhealthy economic trend because residential development is a net drain on county taxes. The vast majority of households pay far less in property taxes than they consume in county services (think of roads, fire and police protection, schools, libraries, county parks, and social services.) In 2006, only houses worth over $900,000 contributed at least as much in property taxes to the county as they, on average, consumed in county services. Businesses, on the other hand, pay relatively large amounts of tax and, on average, require far less in county services. Businesses tend to stimulate other business and more jobs and thus produce indirect economic spinoff and tax benefits to the county. Commercial development that attracts healthy, economically diverse businesses also reduces susceptibility to routine, cyclical declines in residential property values (as in 2006-2007) that seriously reduce county property tax revenues and lead to county budget shortfalls. In short, commercial development almost always subsidizes county finances while residential development is almost always a net drain on them.
  • Residential development rezonings are approved only when there’s a need for new housing. At the end of 2006, the county’s number of approved, but not-yet-built houses reportedly totaled 30-40,000 units. Meanwhile, the residential vacancy rate has continued to rise. The result of an oversupply of housing is inevitably a drop, or in the worst case a collapse, in prices. The longer a housing glut lasts, the more likely it is that sales of existing homes (older homes) will be significantly cannibalized by sales of new homes. The more that happens and the longer it lasts, the more likely it is that older neighborhoods will first fall into decline, and ultimately, in the worst cases, become slums. Residential rezonings should not be approved by the Board of County Supervisors when doing so suits only the purposes of homebuilders. Rather, rezonings should be approved only when doing so makes sense in economic and quality-of-life terms for the county as a whole. (Click here for Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and other articles on how housing oversupply helped create and then prolong the Great Recession that began in late 2007.)

The final and most important ingredient of balanced growth is constant citizen vigilance and engagement with county government, particularly the Board of County Supervisors and its citizens advisory group, the county Planning Commission. Please join us in our efforts to ensure that Prince William County is always a great place in which to live and do business.

Visit the following link for more info on Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth, including who we are, how to contact us, and how you can help.

Ralph Stephenson
Prince William Citizens for Balanced Growth
December 2007