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.
"The board is going to proceed with the resolution, and we are going to pass it," said Stewart, who was elected to fill the remaining year of the term of Sean T. Connaughton (R), who resigned to take another job. "During that one-year window, I am going to lead some long-term land-use reform to permanently slow residential development."
Stewart said that the board is seeking an opinion from County Attorney Ross G. Horton about whether the measure is legal but that he wanted to keep that opinion confidential as a legal strategy. "We don't have to reveal something that is going to hurt our case," Stewart said.
But other members of the board -- Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries), John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) and Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) -- said they would make the memorandum public.
"The public has a right to know what is legal and what isn't legal," Barg said. "My citizens are waiting to hear. I will not be keeping it a secret. We have been sued before and paid big dollars, and we don't need to do that again. . . . I will support something, but I have to find out what that something is."
The Northern Virginia Building Industry Association is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss its response to the freeze, according to Beckner, who is a member of the association.
"We are sort of scratching our heads a little bit," said Jim Williams, executive vice president of the association. "Clearly, with the new chairman, I think the intent is to stop residential development within Prince William County. During his campaign, he targeted residential development to stop it. There is no doubt in my mind that he will use every tool at his disposal to stop or deny any new housing."
Williams said the freeze would not only hurt builders and developers would also have a profound impact on regional employment and the economy. "I think we are going to see a high rate of impact in secondary markets," he said, including employees of small businesses who depend on construction to survive, such as plumbers, electricians, carpet installers, dry wallers and painters. "If you clamp down on construction and are not creating that demand out there, everybody is going to be out of work."
Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said that Covington's proposal has generated a lot of debate about development but that the board really is focusing on transportation. "I think what this does is gives us the tools to link growth and transportation," he said.
It is also about politics. Kaine, who campaigned on linking transportation to development, said during a recent swing through Northern Virginia that he understood the frustration of the Prince William supervisors, but he had another suggestion.
He said Prince William voters should consider replacing two of their legislators, Republicans Jeffrey M. Frederick and L. Scott Lingamfelter, who as members of the House Finance Committee helped defeat the major transportation tax increase proposals before the House of Delegates in September.
Lingamfelter said his vote was motivated by his desire to keep a promise to voters he made not to raise taxes. Frederick said Kaine's tax-increase schemes were the same failed approach to transportation that got the state in its current mess.
Jenkins, who has been on the board of supervisors for about 25 years and was a key supporter of Kaine's during the 2005 gubernatorial campaign, said the time is right for the freeze because the housing market has slowed anyway and because 2007 is an election year. He said it is customary that the board does not approve residential development after August in an election year.
"We'd be taking six months off from approving anything in 2007, and that's fine in my mind," Jenkins said. "I'm going to support the resolution with the aim of getting both the governor and the General Assembly time to give us some congestion relief."