Loudoun Seeks New Powers to Limit Homes
By R.H. Melton
"We're bursting at the seams," said Loudoun County Supervisor Lawrence S. Beerman II (R-Dulles). As Loudoun's population has soared 67 percent since 1990, "we've had to build an entirely brand-new county."
Beerman and county board colleague James G. Burton (I-Mercer) asked a Senate committee for permission to enact a local ordinance that would link the number of new residential units Loudoun could allow to the county's financial means to build schools. The plan would give the county greater authority to limit construction of homes if it did not have the debt capacity to build enough schools to serve them.
Loudoun's proposed "affordability index," which has been tried in other states, would be a novelty in Virginia and in the General Assembly, which jealously guards its long-held authority over what counties may do on development issues.
It is among a variety of ideas being pushed by counties -- including booming Northern Virginia jurisdictions such as Loudoun and Prince William -- that are seeking the legislature's assistance this year in controlling growth and capturing more aid for school and road construction.
"We don't have a very good picture in front of us," Burton said. "We're here asking for help."
Burton, Beerman and Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) said their county is being whipsawed by its success. Once a sleepy, largely agrarian community, Loudoun is now home to an expanding Dulles International Airport and host to corporate giants such as America Online.
Mims cited a University of Virginia study indicating that Loudoun grew from 86,000 people in 1990 to nearly 144,000 residents last year, a 67 percent growth rate that easily surpassed Virginia's second fastest growing county, Fluvanna, which grew by less than 50 percent.
"That indicates the stress that Loudoun's under," Mims said.
That stress, Mims and his allies said, comes from demand for classrooms and other public services that is far outstripping revenue and the county's ability to pay off its school construction debt. In the early 1990s, yearly debt service was about $10 million; within four years, it will be running at $80 million annually, officials said. By then, Loudoun may have built 22 more schools.
Loudoun wants to put home-building on a diet, calibrating new homes to new classrooms. The Beerman-Burton index, limited to Loudoun, would expire after six years.
"We are flat running out of the ability to borrow money to pay for these schools," Burton told the Local Government Committee. "It's the craziest Catch-22 you could possibly imagine."
Senators from other parts of the state expressed some sympathy for Loudoun's plight but reacted warily to the idea of a lone county having tough new authority over the pace of home construction.
"The growth up there is phenomenal," said Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News). "But how will the building permits be distributed? When we pass a bill like this, we need assurance it's going to be done right. To turn you loose with this sort of thing, I don't know what that means in terms of fairness to people."
Burton said the pipeline of unused home construction permits, more than 40,000 in all, should last years and would help with fair distribution.
Sen. John Watkins (R), who represents the fast-growing suburbs of Richmond, asked the Loudoun officials to square their aggressive campaign to recruit businesses to the Dulles corridor with their request for powers to slow growth.
"You say, 'Help us because we can't afford what we're developing,' " he said. "How do you justify that?"
The Loudoun officials said county leaders had agreed to redirect the efforts of the local industrial authority, which had sought new businesses.
Burton, who told the senators that the county's overwhelmingly Republican board had raised taxes for the last three years to keep pace with growth, said prospects for passage of the affordability index were mixed.
"We have to try, though," Burton said. "The numbers don't lie."
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