Anti-Development Forces Massing
By Dan Eggen and Peter Pae
Donna Beck and Linda Budreika have never met. They live in different states, in Washington area subdivisions 50 miles apart.
But they have a lot in common. Both are 41, both have four children -- and both are absolutely fed up.
Because of booming residential development, the roads around their neighborhoods are becoming overrun with traffic, their tax bills are rising and their children go to class in trailers because their schools are so crowded.
"People are finally saying, `Enough!'," said Budreika, a stay-at-home mom in Prince William County. "The developers have gotten a free ride long enough. They're destroying our neighborhoods, our communities."
Beck, a part-time secretary who lives in Upper Marlboro, agrees: "If mamas aren't happy, nobody's happy, and a lot of mamas aren't happy. When you have mothers coming home to kids who have 42 students in their class, they are going to start getting involved. They are going to get angry."
Once confined to the margins of local politics, such sentiments are now the driving force behind dramatic restrictions on development that have been adopted or proposed in suburban Washington in recent months.
In an area known for its splintered politics and lack of regional focus, a scattering of intensely grass-roots efforts appears to be coalescing into a full-fledged movement -- scaring developers and forcing local governments to consider anti-growth measures that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Residents who have never attended a meeting in their lives are swarming public hearings from Loudoun to Prince George's. A meeting in Prince William last week ended in a standing ovation after anti-growth proposals were trotted out. Developers in Fairfax County are confronted with seething crowds when they try to get approval for their plans.
Fanning the flames is the troika of suburban middle-class discontent: clogged traffic, high taxes and, especially, crowded schools.
"I think there is a great awakening taking place," said Tim Powers, a former College Park resident who moved to the new planned community of Cascades six years ago and in August formed the Loudoun County Taxpayers Alliance, an anti-tax group. "People on a massive scale are now understanding that development equals tax increases. To them it's a pocketbook issue and a quality-of-life issue."
The slow-growth plans have come fast and furious in recent months. In Virginia, Loudoun County recently cut by 70,000 the number of houses that could be built in the Dulles South area. Prince William is mulling a proposal that would hit developers with thousands of dollars in additional fees for every house built and would enshrine half the county as a rural enclave, wiping 30,000 potential homes from the map.
In Maryland, Prince George's County has imposed a moratorium on development in areas where schools have too many students. And all Maryland counties are figuring out how to respond to Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening's "Smart Growth" mandate, which requires them to come up with plans to discourage sprawl and encourage rejuvenation of aging suburbs.
There are exceptions to the trend, most notably Montgomery County, a slow-growth pioneer now easing restrictions in an attempt to jump-start development.
And in Charles County, the message is mixed: Commissioners softened rigid growth caps, while at the same time proposing to almost double the fees paid by developers for schools.
But overall, developers and business boosters in the Washington area say an anti-growth mood is rising, as builders increasingly face hostile crowds at meetings connected to their proposals.
"We feel it at the public hearings, with the turnout of the citizens," said Keith Martin, a Virginia land-use lawyer who works in Loudoun and Fairfax. "There is almost an anger, a passion to stop development. . . . There can be a balance that is struck, between the citizen needs and property rights. What is happening is of great concern to the development community and the property owners."
What is causing this sudden shift? It depends on whom you ask.
Certainly the sheer pace of growth is a factor in metropolitan Washington, which gained almost 300,000 residents from 1990 to 1995. The biggest jumps were seen in outer counties such as Howard, Loudoun and Prince William, each of which saw double-digit percentage increases.
According to slow-growthers, those same suburbanites -- beset with the stifling traffic and crowded schools they meant to escape -- are losing faith in the notion that development equals progress.
For example, Loudoun and Prince William together are gaining 6,000 households a year, putting a marked strain on governmental ability to provide basic services. The result has been relatively high taxes with seemingly little in return.
Prince William has the highest real estate tax rate of any county in Virginia, and Loudoun's rate -- up 20 percent in the last decade -- is projected to leap an additional 14 percent next year alone. The cycle is worsened by declining assessments: The values of Prince William's ubiquitous town houses are dropping dramatically, with half of them now worth less than $100,000.
Many want to make developers pay for the services their products require -- or stop them from building altogether.
"Sprawl is starting to hit people in the pocketbooks," said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a slow-growth alliance based in Washington. "We have a growing recognition by the citizens that the form, pattern and pace of growth that they're getting is simply unaffordable."
But developers say this anti-growth movement is just the latest in a cycle, which tends to rise along with the economy.
"It is easy to beat up on the bogeyman of growth and the evil developer who makes the development happen," said John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., who helped develop much of Northern Virginia. "It is a cycle, a perfectly predictable cycle."
Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, agrees.
The robust economy has spurred the number of proposed construction projects, which make suburbanites edgy. At the same time, a healthy economy means people are not as concerned about the loss of jobs that a lack of development can bring.
"This is largely a reaction to the good times," Fuller said.
Indeed, developers, builders and others tied to the real estate business argue that putting the brakes on growth could have disastrous effects on the regional economy.
A favorite example has been Fairfax, which attempted to curtail office construction just as the recession hit in the early 1990s -- resulting in court fights and a political disaster that cost the County Board chairman her job.
Now development interests have a new favorite example: Montgomery, the epitome of slow-growth planning, which now seems ready to unlatch the gates.
Last month, Montgomery officials approved a so-called pay-and-go plan designed to let development proceed with fewer restrictions. Officials in Montgomery, where the population grew just 7 percent from 1990 to 1995, worry that they are being trampled economically by Fairfax, which like Montgomery is among the largest and wealthiest counties in the nation.
Yet Montgomery activists -- many of them not keen on emulating Fairfax -- are organizing to fight that measure, and anti-growth sentiment is clearly still strong in the county: It fueled opposition to a proposed convention center in North Bethesda, helped kill the American Dream Mall in Silver Spring and helped derail the intercounty connector highway project.
In Loudoun, an increasingly successful push for curbs on growth has come largely from a new breed of activists.
More than 250 people, five times the usual number, packed two recent meetings regarding development in rural areas. What was unusual was not only the sheer number of people at the hearings but that many of them were attending their first one.
In response, the county supervisors rejected one proposed development of 3,500 houses -- their first such decision in at least a decade -- and sharply reduced future development in Dulles South.
"I had never seen so many new faces," said Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer). "Ten years ago, it was only a handful of people asking for [development] curbs. Now that it has become a pocketbook issue, controls on growth has gained a broader base of support than it has ever before."
Supervisor David G. McWatters (R-Broad Run) agreed: "There are a lot more people paying attention. People are saying the Devil is at the door and it's time for us to stop sinning."
Cemile Bingol, a Leesburg resident, said development has become the hot topic in the county. "When I talk to people, they say development is too much. It's a one-voice sentiment," she said. "They may not think the same on a lot of issues, but they are united on that."
The new concern over pocketbook issues is a change from decades past, when most anger was directed at traffic or roads. Another new issue igniting local movements is schools, which often suffer serious crowding and funding problems in fast-growing areas.
Douglas Porter, president of the Growth Management Institute in Chevy Chase, said baby boomers are the key: Now in their child-rearing years, schools are paramount and are likely to remain that way for some time.
"This is happening not just in Maryland or Virginia but all over the country," Porter said. "Schools are now very much a flashpoint for unrest and dissatisfaction with the pace of growth."
The issue of school crowding was key to the moratorium signed into law last week in Prince George's, and it plays a crucial role in the growth debate in Prince William.
Both counties, which have relatively few major employers and a glut of low-cost housing, have been wrestling with crowded classrooms for years. About half of Prince George's schools exceed capacity, and Prince William's are so crowded that the hallways of one high school are governed by traffic lanes.
It's not clear whether the various anti-growth initiatives now on the table will do much to change things in the near term. Loudoun and Prince William have about 50,000 housing units each in the pipeline, although the latter is considering policies to lower that number.
Those agitating for change, however, are hopeful.
"The citizens deserve better, and we expect better," Budreika said. "The only way we can get accountability is to hold [officials'] feet to the fire and say, `Enough of this sprawl. We aren't going to pay for it anymore.' "
Said Beck, the self-described "PTA mom" in Prince George's: "It's the same message everywhere. We're all in different places, but we're saying the same thing."
Staff writers Eric Lipton, Manuel Perez-Rivas and Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company