Pr. William Set to Put Housing On Hold

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

Prince William County supervisors, angry that the state government is not responding to residents tired of traffic congestion, say they will approve a radical plan Tuesday to halt construction of new homes in Virginia's second-largest county.

In interviews, the seven board members said they will back a proposal by Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) to freeze residential development as a way to spur Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the General Assembly to take action to improve Northern Virginia's road network.

Whether Covington's resolution can survive a possible legal challenge is uncertain. County attorneys and other officials have been working all week on the wording of the resolution in anticipation of legal action by the building industry or the legislature. Virginia law generally protects the right of landowners to develop their property.

"I am hearing a lot of support for this on the street," Covington said. "This is not taking away anyone's property rights. People are just fed up with not having any action on improving the transportation infrastructure, and they are hoping that the governor and the General Assembly listen to us."

Prince William, which has grown 72 percent over the past 15 years, is at a crossroads of sorts. Its leaders are deciding what the county will look like and what character it will assume as it evolves from a largely rural gateway to southern Virginia into a major Washington suburb -- with the transportation, public safety, education and land-use challenges that come with rapid growth and development.

In last month's election, Prince William residents chose a new board chairman, Corey A. Stewart (R), who promised to check development. They also overwhelmingly approved a $300 million bond issue to pay for transportation improvements, an acknowledgment that Richmond is not providing enough money to untangle daily tie-ups on roads such as routes 1 and 28. The board's two Democrats and five Republicans, who are up for reelection next fall, say they are feeling pressure from constituents to act.

Covington's plan has alarmed Northern Virginia's development and construction community, which worries about the impact of slowing a housing market already in a lull.

"I have great concerns about a declaration like this," said Roy Beckner, director of business development for S.W. Rodgers Co. Inc. of Gainesville. "They better look at all aspects of how it will affect the image of the county and how they want to say that the county is open to business. I think it is a serious mistake on their part to make such a declaration."

Covington said the board cannot refer to the plan as a "moratorium" because lawyers have advised him that using that word would make it illegal. He said supervisors have the right, under existing law, to take up to 12 months to approve new housing that requires approval for rezoning. He said the board will simply take the 12 months to consider any rezoning proposal for new residential development.

"The effect of that is a freeze," he said, adding that he did not know how many housing units would be frozen if the plan is approved.

Steve Griffin, director of the county's planning board, said 26,400 housing units have been approved but not built. He said some approvals date to the 1950s and '60s.

The board will consider a rezoning request at its meeting Tuesday; a developer is seeking to rezone 24 acres from agriculture to suburban residential to build 12.7 housing units an acre.

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