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Spotsylvania County

Population Rise Stirs Interest in Taxes to Ease Strains

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page C05

If every parcel of land in Spotsylvania -- now the country's 19th fastest-growing county -- is built out under current water and sewer capacity, the population will more than triple. With a 4 percent annual growth rate and land values steadily climbing, officials say that scenario is likely.

The pressure of expansion, some officials say, explains the results of a new poll concluding that residents of this very Republican county are willing to have their taxes raised -- a concept typically treated like a deadly disease by local politicians during campaign time -- to improve public services strained by growth.

The poll, conducted by a county watchdog group called the Committee of 500, found that the majority of voters questioned on Election Day at the polls were open to tax increases to improve roads and bring commuter rail to Spotsylvania, about 60 miles south of Washington on the I-95 corridor. Thirty-six percent of voters said they would support tax increases to fund full-time ambulance service. Today, about two-thirds of the semi-rural county is served by volunteers, and two-thirds of stations aren't staffed at night or on weekends.

"I suspect there is a whole host of things people would support," Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert Hagan, R-Courtland, said of possible tax increases.

Managing a growth rate that climbed to 6 percent and higher through the 1990s was the focus of the last county election, in which two longtime supervisors were jettisoned for their pro-growth positions.

Evidence of the emotion behind the topic was on display this week in the supervisors' chamber, where residents cried and gave a standing ovation after the board approved a development that not only will bring hundreds of senior citizens to the county but also will set aside green space and preserve part of a Civil War battlefield. The original proposal for the site, a 2,000-home "town" with more than 1 million square feet of commercial space, was rejected last year after a public outcry over traffic and the trampling of history.

In the past two years, however, the growth rate has declined, in part because of a 2002 board measure that reduced the total number of units that could be built in the county by 40 percent. Officials are proud of having cut the growth rate to its current 3.9 percent, and their goal is 2 percent, "which is tough when you have in the hopper thousands and thousands of lots," county planning director Ric Goss said.

Goss said models show that Spotsylvania will have about 200,000 residents if existing lots are built out under their current zoning, and 350,000 if the county is built out under current water and sewer capacity -- an important predictor, he said. Today, the population is about 108,000.

The population surge has strained county services, particularly in transportation. "Traffic, traffic and traffic," Hagan said when asked about his constituents' main concerns.

Mindful of the importance county residents place on mobility, the Committee of 500 surveyed voters at the polls this month, asking whether they thought the county should join the Virginia Railway Express commuter rail system.

Doing so would require a 2 percent gas tax to pay for the county's participation. VRE officials estimate that the county's regular contribution to the regional system would be about $550,000. The tax would bring in about $2.5 million annually, Hagan said, and the extra money would go toward road improvements.

Fifty-seven percent of the 1,840 people who responded supported the gas tax, while 42 percent said they did not. Asked whether they would support a 2 cent increase in "county taxes" to support a road improvement fund, 53 percent said yes, 35 percent said no, and 12 percent said they would support a 5 cent tax increase for roads.

While 36 percent of respondents said they would increase taxes for round-the-clock ambulance service "that meets national and state standards for response times," 37.6 percent said they would prefer to charge user fees for increased service, something also under consideration in Montgomery County.

Many municipalities charge fees, which supporters note is often covered by patients' health insurance. The Spotsylvania poll noted that fees would be waived for people who couldn't afford them, but opponents have suggested that patients might not understand the fee structure and decide against calling an ambulance when they need one.

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