Environmentalists Avoiding Quarrel With Governor

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Despite disappointment in Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's failure to advance the central plank in his growth-control platform, environmental groups are holding back from launching an all-out battle against his push for billions of dollars in transportation spending.

Environmental and "smart growth" advocates cheered when Kaine said during his campaign and first weeks in office that solving Northern Virginia's traffic problems meant doing a better job of managing growth, rather than just spending money to build roads. Now, they are lamenting Kaine's decision to settle for some lesser changes in planning procedures, calling it a missed opportunity given the seemingly widespread public support for his proposals.

But the advocates, who in 2002 helped block a major transportation funding program, say they are holding some of their fire this time because they believe they are making progress in redefining the debate in Richmond. Rather than fighting money for roads outright, they remain hopeful that some language to control development might yet make its way into the transportation financing packages being debated in the General Assembly's special session.

"We think there's still a great opportunity for the governor and legislature to agree on planning reforms that could give the public greater confidence in how the money will be spent," said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Christopher G. Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, said that among the items he and others mentioned in a meeting with the Democratic governor last week were that any roads funding program include more money for mass transit and that it include a reassessment of the roads projects that the state has on its to-do list.

The advocates' more nuanced approach stands in contrast to 2002, when, allied with anti-tax groups, they launched an aggressive and successful bid to defeat a referendum to raise the sales tax in Northern Virginia to pay for new roads, a plan backed by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and the business community.

Growth-control advocates say it would not make sense to attempt a similar campaign this year. Kaine and the state Senate are seeking to add more than $1 billion a year for transportation projects by raising some taxes and fees, while the House wants to spend $350 million in continuing revenue without raising taxes.

The advocates said this year's negotiations in Richmond are a far cry from the referendum campaign, when opponents of the roads funding package could appeal directly to voters. Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, agreed with that assessment. Although the advocates had a "tremendous impact" on the referendum and are successfully drafting slow-growth candidates for local races, they are struggling to translate public support into influence in Richmond, he said.

"They're beginning to have a larger impact, but I'm not sure they're the key player in the endgame there over the next couple of months," he said.

Several of Kaine's growth-control proposals did pass, including a requirement for standardized traffic impact studies for major rezoning requests (something most Northern Virginia counties already do) and an allowance for the transfer of development rights from one part of a county to another.

Still, advocates had higher hopes, particularly in the centerpiece of Kaine's growth control program: a proposal to clarify the authority of local governments to reject developers' rezoning requests based on traffic impact.

With developers opposed to the measure, a House committee rejected it. Some Senators tried to revive it, but Kaine stopped pushing for it and the effort faltered.

Lisa Guthrie, director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said Kaine told her and others last week that he needed to back off the bill to secure support from builders for higher taxes to support transportation spending.

Growth-control advocates said it was hard to understand why developers' objections were enough to block the plan, given that Kaine knew there would be opposition when he announced it.

Kaine administration officials said the plan lacked sufficient legislative support. Growth-control advocates need to appreciate the measures that did pass, as well as Kaine's overall success in focusing more attention on their issues, the officials said.

"He made the coordination of transportation and land use a priority, not just a legislative priority but also an executive branch priority," said Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. "That means the issue doesn't go away when the legislature goes home."

Roger Dietrich, chairman of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said advocates would have to be more aggressive in holding Kaine to his word next year. "Maybe we have to give [Kaine] a bye in his first" session, he said, "but we can't keep accepting a quarter loaf as we did this year."

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