Area Officials Struggle To Fit Lid on Growth

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

To hear some activists and local officials in Virginia tell it, the key to slowing rampant growth is to follow the lead of many Maryland counties: Ban development where roads and schools are crowded.

But here is what that method has accomplished in Anne Arundel County: More than one-third of its school districts are closed to new subdivisions, even in areas intended to absorb construction under the state's much-touted "slow-growth" laws. As a result, development is being pushed to more rural parts of the state less suited to handle it.

The shortcomings of Maryland's growth policies are just one sign of what frustrated officials are finding in both states -- that controlling development is not as easy as just saying no. Three months after voters in the D.C. suburbs elected candidates who vowed to slow growth, reform proposals are floundering amid political inertia and resistance from developers.

But also undermining speedy action is deep uncertainty about how best to harness development in one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. The hard truth, say skeptical officials and land-use experts, is that today's crowded roads and schools are the result of years of decisions and cannot be fixed quickly by clamping down on growth.

"It's sticking an oar in the water to turn a battleship," said Joseph Rutter, who recently retired as Anne Arundel's planning director. "But it's very easy to attack the new growth and say that's what's causing the problem."

The public clamor for slower growth is unmistakable. In Maryland, Isiah Leggett (D) was elected as Montgomery County executive last fall after saying that he would be tougher on developers than his opponents. In Virginia, Republican Corey A. Stewart ran on the same platform to become chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. The year before, Timothy M. Kaine (D) became Virginia's governor based partly on calls for development controls.

Picking up on voters' moods, lawmakers have been striving to be seen as taking action. Prince William and Loudoun counties, among the fastest-growing in the country, have instituted year-long moratoriums on most development. But the actions are mostly symbolic, as there are few major projects on the horizon.

In Richmond, Kaine again proposed legislation that would make it easier for Virginia counties to reject requests to rezone properties for more intense development if officials determine that it would overwhelm local roads. The legislation was blocked recently under opposition from developers but might resurface in another form.

But even if the proposal is revived, there are doubts among some officials about how much Kaine's plan would accomplish, since the legislation essentially spelled out a power that many local officials say they already have.

The proposal's supporters say it would help anyway because, by clarifying local authority, it would give counties more confidence to reject requests without fear of being taken to court by developers.

"You can say no, but it's always a crapshoot," said Loudoun Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge). "The more arrows we have in the quiver, the better off we are."

Similarly, builders oppose the proposal because they fear that the broader language it contains will make it easier for local officials to oppose rezonings without clear evidence of traffic troubles. It lowers the bar for rejections "to an arbitrary or capricious standard," said Michael Toalson, lobbyist for the powerful Home Builders Association of Virginia. "You don't have to defend it -- you can just say, 'Nope, we don't want it.' "

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