For Managed-Growth Advocates, a Humbling Session
By Dan Eggen
When an alliance of fast-growing counties and managed-growth activists arrived in Richmond this year, they trotted out a slate of legislation aimed at controlling suburban sprawl -- and warned legislators of retribution at the polls if they didn't sign on.
By this week, the coalition's heady campaign had become a desperate retreat, as the Virginia Senate approved legislation aimed mainly at Fauquier County that stripped local jurisdictions of one of the tools they've used to control development.
It was a final, humbling defeat for advocates of managed growth in Virginia, who were rebuffed at nearly every turn by the General Assembly. Lawmakers rejected bills that would have let local governments bar development in areas without adequate schools, roads and utilities, and refused to give jurisdictions more ability to charge developers fees for each house they build.
On the winning side of the votes were legislators and others who feared that development limits would hurt the state's economy and represented an alarming infringement on the rights of Virginia property owners. The outcome also illustrated the political clout of Virginia real estate and construction interests, which worked hard to defeat the bills and have contributed $1.2 million to lawmakers across the state since 1996.
"The housing industry and the pro-growth people were extremely well organized and hit the ground running even before the session started," said Del. Barnie K. Day (D-Patrick), who objected to many of the managed-growth proposals as violations on property rights.
Proponents of controlled-growth bills vowed to keep at it, targeting lawmakers who voted against them in the November elections and returning to the General Assembly next year with many of the same proposals.
The campaign also has helped spur a wider legislative debate over the future of Virginia's tax system. Local governments are pressing the state to give them a share of income tax revenue that comes from their jurisdictions to help pay the costs of building schools and providing other services to new residents.
"We went into this process knowing we weren't going to get much out of it this year," said Loudoun County Supervisor Scott K. York (R-Sterling), chairman of the Coalition of High Growth Communities. "But I think we're making inroads into getting broader support, and we anticipate that in a couple years there will be major changes in Richmond."
At the dawn of the legislative session in January, the 24-member coalition unleashed an ambitious roster of proposals aimed at giving local authorities more power to control the pace of construction and to cope with its costs. But those and other initiatives never reached the floor of the Senate, where they were swiftly killed at the committee level.
And in the House, delegates approved legislation prohibiting Fauquier and some other localities from requiring special permits for certain housing developments -- a tactic local officials have used to manage the pace of development. The Senate chimed in Tuesday with a version of its own, sending it back to the House for a final vote.
Many lawmakers had little patience for complaints from Loudoun and other localities that are struggling to keep pace with rapid growth, especially those whose own districts have trouble attracting jobs.
Construction industry representatives also said backers of the managed-growth bills were naive to the ways of the General Assembly and offended lawmakers with incendiary rhetoric and pointed political threats.
"I don't think they helped themselves with their tone," said Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia, which spearheaded the drive against the proposals.
Jolly de Give, planning director for the Piedmont Environmental Council, said: "That's just an excuse. If we'd been sweet as pie and as polite as we possibly could be, the same thing would have happened."
But de Give and others say they will learn from their mistakes, focusing on presenting an organized and unified front next year. Many of the proposals that were killed were referred to a special commission on growth issues headed by Del. Gladys B. Keating (D-Fairfax).
"Next year, they need to have a much more visible and continuing presence, and they need to make their case to the legislators even before the session has begun," said Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun). "There were dozens of paid lobbyists whose mission it was to kill the bills, and they did so."
Staff writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company