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The Trouble with Town Houses

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 1998

First in an occasional series

It was bad enough that Joe Huite had to buy back his Lake Ridge town house for $93,000 when the sale went bad. Then he had to try to sell it again.

More than a year later, Huite finally had a buyer -- but for $8,000 less than he paid.

"That's the only way I could sell it," said Huite, a Springfield restaurateur who rented out the town house. "It was a lot of headaches. . . . A lot of people out there aren't getting what they paid for those houses."

Pity the poor town house. A hallmark of Prince William County for decades, the humble, middle-class dwelling now is derided as a symbol of decline -- blamed for dragging down property values, overburdening schools and contributing to the county's image as the epitome of suburban sprawl.

Prince William is so overrun with town houses that owners such as Huite commonly lose as much as 20 percent on a sale, according to real estate agents. And despite seven years of low but steady inflation and a booming economy, the average assessed value of a town house in Prince William actually has dropped since 1990.

Little surprise, then, that town houses and their problems are central to a dramatic series of growth restrictions that will be considered by the Board of County Supervisors during the next six months.

Proposals by County Executive Bern Ewert would set aside nearly half the county as a rural enclave and ask that developers pay thousands of dollars extra for schools, parks and other services. The plan would eliminate as many as 28,000 potential dwellings, including town houses, from county maps.

In addition, Ewert and his staff have fashioned a set of nuanced changes to county zoning laws targeting town houses that already have preliminary approval. On Tuesday, the board will consider taking the first step toward implementing those changes, and on Thursday, the county will hold its first town meeting on the slow-growth plan as a whole.

"We have a glut of town houses, and it's just out of control," said Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries). "It's not a criticism of town homes, but it's been overdone. . . . Our schools cannot keep up with the growth. Every survey that I've seen shows that this is what the citizens want."

In a recent county-sponsored survey of residents, three out of four people opposed construction of more town houses, part of overwhelming dissatisfaction with the pace and scale of development in Prince William.

But some say free-market forces will solve the problem without county involvement. Roy Beckner, president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association's Prince William chapter, said developers already are moving away from building town houses because the market is so saturated. Government, he said, should stay out of it.

"It looks to me like the marketplace is making the kind of adjustments it would normally make," Beckner said.

Town houses -- narrow, multi-story dwellings joined together in rows -- make up a quarter of Prince William's 100,000 housing units and have been key to the county's emergence as a popular middle-class destination in suburban Washington. Half are valued at less than $100,000, with just 5 percent worth more than $150,000.

And more are likely on the way: About 19,000 more town houses can be built under current zoning.

Often inhabited by young families, inexpensive town houses cost the county far more in schools and other services than they contribute in taxes, officials say. High densities mean little space for parks and other amenities. And stagnant town house values are dragging down assessments in entire neighborhoods, further depressing resale prices and the county's tax base.

Yet developers happily build more, some officials and real estate agents say, because prices are so low that many town house buyers find they can buy a brand-new unit for just about the same price as an older one.

"It's just a shame that they keep building and building and building these town houses and are sucking people in," said Ella Shannon, a former planning commissioner who has been a real estate agent in Woodbridge for 20 years. "We need to stop this big push for the town houses. It's bringing everything in the county down."

Dianne Barbrey, departing president of the Prince William Association of Realtors, estimates that it would take four to five years to sell the backlog of town houses currently on the market.

"We fully understand both sides of it," Barbrey said. "The builders are good friends of ours, and they've provided us with a good product. But sellers are having an awful time, and we need to see some balance there."

Hence the proposed changes in Prince William's comprehensive plan. In Virginia, counties are relatively free to change their master plans, which govern general issues of land use and development.

But matters get dicier when it comes to changing zoning on land already approved for development, especially reductions in density called "downzoning." Critics say the practice deprives landowners of the full value of their property, and court challenges are almost a certainty.

Yet the county is desperate to rein in town houses, particularly the thousands that are allowed under the current plan but that haven't yet received final approval for construction. To that end, Ewert and County Attorney Sharon E. Pandak have proposed a set of ordinance changes crafted to withstand legal objections.

The proposal would require that town houses be at least 20 feet wide, rather than the current 16 feet; limit the number that could be joined in a row; require that developments set aside 30 percent of their land for parks, lawns and other greenery; and reduce maximum development densities by 40 percent. Officials say it is impossible to estimate exactly how many town houses might be eliminated that way, but they hope the number is substantial.

Developers and home builders are organizing to defeat the measure, arguing that it would amount to an illegal downzoning.

And Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville), who is pursuing plans to build housing and offices in his district, has objected that the changes are unfair to landowners and could result in monumental legal costs.

"How many tax dollars will be needed to be spent on litigation or settlements if downzoning takes place?" Wilbourn asked in a critical set of questions submitted to Ewert last month. "How will this set the tone for public relations if this Board attempts to terminate its commitment on previous rezonings? . . . What does that do to our image and credibility?"

On Tuesday, supervisors will decide whether to push ahead with the measure, which would be considered by two review committees and the Planning Commission before coming back to the board for a final decision.

Supporters argue that curbing town houses is key if Prince William -- known primarily as a middle-class community that is home to Potomac Mills and Manassas National Battlefield Park -- wishes to change its direction and image. Officials want to lure more high-end housing and high-technology businesses as part of a strategy to ease school crowding and lower real estate tax rates, which are the highest of any county in Virginia.

"You can't lose sight of the quality issue," said Richard E. Lawson, planning director. "There is a wide interest in bettering the overall quality of development in the county. . . . If we can make that shift to a higher quality product, that will bring up all values."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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