County Curbs Development
By Peter Pae
In a landmark decision, the County Board of Supervisors drastically reduced the density of development plans for Dulles South, the last large undeveloped tract in eastern Loudoun.
The supervisors voted 6 to 3 to restrict development west of Route 659 to one house per acre, effectively cutting the number of houses that can be built in Dulles South from 104,000 to 33,780 and resolving -- for now -- one of the most contentious land-use debates in recent memory.
In a separate vote that dealt a second blow to development interests, the board also approved doubling the money that developers are asked to contribute to obtain permission to build houses in Loudoun.
Taken together, the two decisions marked a dramatic shift for the board. Since the mid-1980s, the supervisors have drafted land-use policies opening large tracts of land to developers and approved every major rezoning application that sought to increase the density of developments.
Developers and economic development officials decried the moves, saying they were unfair to developers who bought land when it was more densely zoned and would dampen the county's surging economy and lead to expensive lawsuits.
Nevertheless, a majority of the supervisors said changes were needed to address an increasingly noisy public outcry over the high cost of growth. In the last year, residents have increasingly complained of rising taxes, more traffic and stagnant housing values as a result of a glut of new homes.
Supervisor Scott K. York (R-Sterling), who proposed the changes to the original 1993 development plan for the area, called the decision a "major victory" for managing growth. "While we welcome development," he said,"we shouldn't welcome development all over the place, which creates a myriad of problems."
But Supervisor Steven D. Whitener (R-Sugarland Run) called the vote "a meaningless exercise in terms of taxes. . . . These changes won't impact taxes until 20 to 30 years from now. If you don't want tax increases, you vote against them."
The vote came shortly after county budget director Ben Mays released new figures indicating that said school costs would outpace revenue within five years at the county's current rate of growth. By 2016, the study estimated that under the original development plan, Dulles South would generate a $14 million annual deficit.
Mays said the numbers would continue to look bad "without a significant portion of commercial and industrial activity coming on line parallel to any residential construction."
The fiscal impact study for Dulles South estimated that at build-out under the original plan, the population of the area would surge from 3,316 to 256,639, or double the county's total current population. In addition, 56 new schools would have to be built, at a cost of nearly $1.2 billion.
Under the changes approved yesterday, the Dulles South population would rise to 94,000, requiring 20 new schools at a cost of more than $443 million.
Peggy Maio, Loudoun representative with the Piedmont Environmental Council, a land-use watchdog group, said yesterday's vote was "not just about one area of the county, but the change in the direction of the county in how it is going to manage growth."
The county is already one of the fastest-growing jurisdictions in the country, adding 3,000 houses and 7,000 residents annually for the last four years. At the same time, real estate taxes increased from 99 cents per $100 of assessed value two years ago to $1.06. County officials have estimated that the rate would have to rise to $1.25 in the next four years to keep up current services without adding new ones.
Rather calling a vote on the entire plan to reduce the density of Dulles South, Chairman Dale Polen Myers, a firm opponent of the changes, made the unusual move of separating the proposal into 13 separate elements and taking 13 votes.
Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Mercer) questioned why the process was being drawn out and attempted to force a vote on the entire proposal, but his motion to consolidate the questions failed to win a two-thirds majority.
Yesterday's revisions to the 1993 Dulles South plan would realign Route 659, moving it west of its current path, and restrict development west of the road to one house per acre until the area can support more density -- meaning until is economical to extend water and sewer to the area.
The changes effectively shut out plans by a New York-based company to build a 1,500-unit residential community near the Town of Watson, west of Route 659. Residents in the area had complained that the Broad Run Village rezoning would bring unwanted traffic and crime and ruin the rural landscape.
The supervisors also made it more expensive to build in the county by increasing the proffer payments from 25 percent to 50 percent of the cost of public facilities and services that will be required by a new subdivision. In reality, proffers are negotiated between the builder and the county and rarely equal the required amount. But the increase in the requirement is likely to raise the negotiated amounts as well.
The vote on the proffers was 8 to 1, with Whitener dissenting. Whitener said the change, which is effective immediately, is unfair to developers with projects already in the pipeline.
But York said the county could not afford to add any more houses without insisting that developers pay a greater share of the costs of growth. A study by the Piedmont Environmental Council estimated that a house pays only one-third in taxes than what of what it requires in services.
Steven DeLong, president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, said the supervisors were using developers as scapegoats. He said the increased proffer requirement will do little to mitigate the impact of more than 50,000 houses that have been approved in the county but not yet built.
"Over the next five to 10 years, we have to deal with the fact we are going to have 3,000 homes a year no matter what the supervisors do," DeLong said. "What the supervisors are doing doesn't address the current issue. Our industry is disappointed because we are always a scapegoat when growth occurs."
Delong also accused the board of trying to close the door on new residents when most of the costs are being incurred by current residents.
"As soon as you come in you want to shut the door, and say, `I prefer no one comes in, but if you want to come in you have to pay more than I did,' " DeLong said. "I'm not sure that's fair."
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