3 Counties Attempt to Put Brakes On Growth

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The map of land available for new homes in the Washington area shrank yesterday as officials in three suburban counties took major steps toward restricting development in the strongest statement yet of the anti-growth sentiment that has seized the region.

In Virginia, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted for a one-year freeze on most subdivisions to protest the lack of transportation funding from the General Assembly. And in Loudoun County, the Board of Supervisors approved a long-debated move to restrict new housing in the rural western section.

In Maryland, Montgomery County's new council president introduced legislation to impose a temporary moratorium on most large developments to allow for an assessment of land-use policies that some say have become too pro-business.

Together, the actions underscore that the pendulum of public sentiment has swung strongly against development in one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. Local governments that only a few years ago boasted of their burgeoning economies are now billing themselves as guardians of open space and eliciting howls from builders, some of whom may challenge the measures in court.

But whether yesterday's measures mean real relief for residents and commuters who are demanding more controlled growth in a region riven by sprawl and traffic congestion remains to be seen. Advocates of "smart-growth" policies question whether the steps taken yesterday will accomplish nearly as much as promised in directing development to the areas best suited to absorb it.

"Of course it's appropriate to link land use and transportation. The question is, how do you get it done?" said Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. "I don't think just shutting things down is the right way to go."

As greater Washington has expanded, so has the public clamor for better growth and transportation planning. The region's traffic congestion now ranks among the country's worst. Loudoun and Prince William are among the fastest-growing counties in the country, having added a combined 160,000 people in the past five years.

Suburban areas closer to Washington, such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties, are struggling with how to focus growth in already developed "infill" areas without overwhelming roads and schools.

Recent elections have reflected the anti-development tide. Last year, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) was elected in Virginia on a platform to better link transportation and land use. Last month, Democrat Isiah "Ike" Leggett won the race for Montgomery executive after saying that he would do more than his opponents to slow growth. And Republican Corey A. Stewart was elected chairman of the Prince William board after accusing his opponent of being soft on developers.

The newly elected officials have wasted little time in acting on their campaign pledges, but those tracking them say that their actions might be designed more for public consumption than for real impact.

In Prince William, Stewart and his allies on the board say that a freeze on subdivision rezonings is needed to get the attention of Richmond lawmakers who haven't provided the transportation funding that local officials say they need. But the move's backers acknowledge that it is intended mostly as a symbolic action, because, with the housing market slowing, there are few major rezonings on the horizon. New homes that don't require rezonings could still be built.

The moratorium nonetheless provoked sharp opposition yesterday from some builders, who said that the freeze would halt several projects in their tracks, hurt the local building community and result in a housing shortage down the line.

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