Growth Law's Effectiveness Is Uncertain

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Slow-growth advocates did their best this year to hail the few measures approved by the Virginia General Assembly giving local governments more tools for guiding development.

But officials in Northern Virginia said they aren't likely to use the laws -- particularly a measure that would allow property owners to transfer development rights from one parcel to another.

State Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield) sponsored the measure, which is designed to make it easier for local officials to encourage open-space conservation in some parts of their communities while promoting growth in others. Cities and counties were given the authority to establish "sending" and "receiving" zones, allowing property owners in those areas to buy and sell development rights accordingly.

For example, a landowner in a sending zone might be entitled under existing zoning to build 30 houses on 10 acres, while a second owner could do the same on 10 acres in a receiving zone. Under the measure, the first landowner would be able to sell the right to build those 30 houses to the second landowner, who then could build 60 houses. The first property, meanwhile, would be preserved forever.

Local government officials said they are skeptical about the concept for several reasons. First, most Northern Virginia localities already encourage conservation by allowing property owners to build more houses in exchange for setting aside open space elsewhere.

But perhaps more important, officials said, the policy has the potential to inflame resentment in high-density regions, where some residents feel they are bearing the brunt of growth as others are protected. In Loudoun County, that resentment runs along east-west lines: Some homeowners in the suburban east are unhappy that more is being done to preserve the rural west than to stem growth where they live.

"I don't support expecting all new growth in the county to occur in the eastern third," said Loudoun Supervisor Mick Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run). "Transferring development rights could be used successfully in Loudoun, but not by shifting development from the west to the east."

Sean T. Connaughton (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said his concern about the concept is that by allowing any transfers to occur, counties could open the door to transfers that don't align with their land-use goals.

"Our concern would be that you could not only transfer from lesser density areas to higher density areas, but it raises the possibility of potentially moving density from the development area out the other way," Connaughton said. "I don't think that's been very carefully thought through on how it actually would be implemented."

Staton said he doesn't like the idea of giving blanket authority to county staff members to authorize such transfers without public hearings and comment from the owners of adjacent properties.

Watkins said that's one of the most important aspects of the legislation: It gives property owners the choice to transfer development rights instead of making it something they must negotiate with local governments in exchange for payments or land preservation.

"Once you set the guidelines, you can't go changing them just because of one developer you don't like," Watkins said. "You've got to be fair to the landowners, too."

Staton and others said the best use of the new tool would be to encourage a shift of development to commercial corridors or towns while open space is preserved elsewhere. A redirection of development is possible even in a built-out community such as Fairfax County, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the District-based Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Schwartz is one of several slow-growth advocates who hailed the measure as one of the few victories in a year when stronger tools for controlling growth failed in the state legislature. Another was a bill that requires developers seeking rezonings to submit a traffic impact analysis -- though most local governments already require that.

The legislature did not approve a proposal to allow governments to reject residential rezoning requests when a transportation system could not serve a development adequately. Local officials also sought the right to charge impact fees, particularly for projects planned for land rezoned years ago. Those developers currently are not required to provide money for the new schools, firehouses and recreational facilities needed to serve the new homes they build.

"For jurisdictions in Northern Virginia such as Prince William County, there is not a single piece of legislation that's been passed this year which will really impact us," Connaughton said. "We already do almost everything that they're authorizing."

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