Curbs on Development Proposed
By Dan Eggen
Prince William County officials proposed yesterday dramatically curtailing new development, recommending that nearly half the county be set aside as a rural enclave and that developers be asked to pay much higher fees to cover costs of schools, parks and other services.
The proposal, presented to Prince William's Planning Commission, is billed as a vital turnabout for a county bedeviled by crowded schools, high taxes and a pervasive image as a sprawl of inexpensive town houses and strip malls.
County Executive Bern Ewert and his cadre of planners argue that the plan would save $360 million in coming decades by avoiding the need to build as many as 22 new schools. The county's population, currently 260,000, is projected to go as high as 475,000 in the next three decades; the proposal aims to cut that to 390,000 or fewer.
In touting the plan, Prince William officials join a rising chorus of discontent over the pace and expense of growth in Washington's suburbs.
Prince George's County this week adopted a moratorium on new development that would temporarily halt construction of houses in neighborhoods where schools have too many students.
And Loudoun County recently voted for the first time in at least a decade to reject a proposal for a large planned community, opting instead to reduce by 70,000 the maximum number of houses envisioned for the largely rural area, known as Dulles South.
"Prince William County cannot continue on its present course," wrote Ewert, who took office nine months ago, in a letter to planning commissioners. "We cannot financially support the growth and resulting service demands we are experiencing today. We cannot afford to build the schools, parks and other capital projects our growth demands."
Developers, who already were alarmed by less stringent slow-growth proposals, predicted that the latest plan would backfire on Prince William, reducing property values, and thus tax revenue, and discouraging tax-paying businesses from moving to the county.
"It sounds fairly extreme and out of character with the direction Prince William is going," said Douglas MacLeod, departing president of the Prince William chapter of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. "We're very surprised. It will definitely have a profound impact on the value of land, and that could impact tax rates and all kinds of other things."
Prince William, known as the home of Potomac Mills Mall, is a sprawling, overwhelmingly middle-class county stretching from Bull Run Mountain in the west to the Potomac River in the east.
Because of a combination of inexpensive housing, an abundance of families with young children and relatively few major employers, Prince William is cursed with the highest county real estate tax rate in Virginia and schools so crowded that students cram into more than 100 temporary classroom trailers.
The debate over the county's future began in earnest last year. A citizens task force recommended reducing the number of houses that could be built in the county, an approach endorsed by the Planning Commission.
But Ewert's recommendation would go even further and is meant as a major shift in the way the county looks at and feels about itself. The Planning Commission had proposed reducing by 18,000 the number of houses that eventually could be built on undeveloped land. Ewert's plan would cut that by nearly 30,000.
A recent survey indicated that three-quarters of the county's residents want slower growth and less construction.
"A lot of this grew out of this growing dissatisfaction in the community," said Richard E. Lawson, acting planning director. "There's a sense of an unattractive, negative image. . . . We want to improve the quality of life in the county."
Among the most dramatic recommended changes, the plan would designate 100,000 acres of the western and northern parts of the county -- nearly half its total area -- as a "Rural Crescent" that would be limited to 10-acre estates and hobby farms. That and other changes would wipe nearly 30,000 potential housing units off the planning maps in undeveloped areas.
In addition, the proposal could prevent thousands of houses from being built on land that already has received zoning approval for houses. There are nearly 50,000 such housing units in the pipeline in Prince William, including 19,000 town houses.
The zoning approvals wouldn't be revoked under Ewert's plan, but new regulations would lower the number of houses -- particularly inexpensive town houses -- that could be built in some cases. Officials said it was impossible to predict how many houses would be eliminated that way.
Ewert also proposed asking developers to pay $11,000 or more for every detached house they build, money that would help pay for schools, parks, libraries, roads and the like. That's almost five times the amount developers are now asked to contribute but still only about half the money needed for every new home built, officials said.
The plan also includes a proposal aimed at attracting businesses by creating districts where companies would not be asked to pay the same fees as they do in other areas.
Lawson and other officials said yesterday that the plan is tailored to avoid lawsuits from developers, who in Virginia are legally entitled to strong protections from fees and zoning changes that limit their ability to develop their land.
But John Foote, of Manassas, a former Prince William county attorney who now represents developers and landowners, said the county is sure to attract legal challenges if it goes ahead with the plan.
"It remains to be seen if the development community will go along with this game," Foote said yesterday. "It's not a traditional down-zoning, but any time you deprive a landowner of his rights to develop his land, it is in effect a down-zoning."
Board of County Supervisors Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D) had generally good things to say yesterday about Ewert's proposals but stressed that she was not endorsing them. The board is set to adopt a new master plan governing development in the spring or summer.
"It puts things in a good context, both short term and long term," Seefeldt said. "I think it sets out a strategy for a better balance between commercial and residential. . . . This is an important addition to our debate."
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