Clarification to This Article
The Feb. 4 Metro article about a proposed bill that would curtail Fairfax County's ability to obtain cash proffers from developers omitted information that is important in describing the position of Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly. Connolly opposes the bill and has actively lobbied against it in phone calls and meetings with lawmakers.

Bill Could Force Curb On Growth, Fairfax Says

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

Rezonings for home construction in Fairfax County could be sharply curtailed, or even frozen, if Virginia lawmakers pass a bill ending the system of payments that local governments receive from developers to help pay for roads, schools and other services, county officials say.

The 30-year-old system of voluntary payments and in-kind contributions, known as proffers, produces millions of dollars a year that local governments use to offset the impact of construction.

A bill before the Senate, sponsored on behalf of the politically influential -- and slumping -- home-building industry, would replace the proffer system with a schedule of flat fees for each new house. It would also sharply restrict counties' ability to receive such non-cash contributions as land for parks, libraries, affordable housing units, trees and playground equipment.

The first version of the bill, introduced by Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield), included an increase in the tax paid by home sellers in some communities, but that was eliminated in committee hearings. However, Watkins, who received $66,500 in contributions from real estate and construction interests in the 2007 campaign, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, said he will try to restore the provision.

The Home Builders Association of Virginia, which helped draft Watkins's bill, says it is necessary because of the housing slump and the inordinately high proffers extracted by some fast-growing counties in Northern Virginia. Loudoun County's suggested fee for each new home is about $47,000, the highest in the state, though the final amount is often subject to negotiation.

Fairfax's proffers vary but are roughly $15,000 for each new single-family home. The county collected $7.9 million in cash proffers in 2007, according to reports it files annually with the state. Officials said last week that the proposed impact fees would come nowhere near replacing the revenue from proffers.

In a memo to the Board of Supervisors, James P. Zook, the county planning and zoning director, said the bill "will have far-reaching and adverse impacts on Fairfax County's ability to manage its growth and to provide an adequate level of public facilities . . . in tandem with population growth."

At a meeting of the board's legislative committee Friday, supervisors and administrators said that if the county were unable to use proffers to negotiate with developers for public improvements, they would be forced to sharply curtail approval of rezonings.

"We'd have a lot shorter board meetings," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence).

County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, usually circumspect in his public comments when meeting with the supervisors, sharply criticized lawmakers for moving such sweeping legislation through the system without more careful study. He suggested sending a letter to lawmakers threatening a moratorium on rezonings if the Watkins bill passes.

"They're very cavalier in terms of how they are approaching this in the General Assembly," Griffin said.

Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who is expected to formally announce his candidacy for Congress soon, quickly deflected the idea, which would be likely to alienate developers, who have contributed generously to his campaigns.

"Let's think about that," Connolly said. He added, however, that it is important to see that the bill is put on hold for more analysis.

One problem facing the Fairfax government in fighting the bill is that it doesn't have a clear idea of how much it receives in proffers. The county started an annual accounting only after a state law began to require it a few years ago. Also, years can pass from the time proffers are pledged to when they are collected, which usually doesn't happen until a project is close to construction.

"What we have is episodic reports and anecdotal examples," Connolly said. He added that the county will need "a much more comprehensive approach on proffers if we're going to be able to defend our interests in Richmond."

The bill was approved by the Senate Local Government Committee last week and is expected to be taken up this week by the Finance Committee.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company