Those slow-growth (some called them no-growth) policies that some suburban jurisdictions adopted in the 1970s seem like so much ancient history now in the midst of an economic boom around the Capital Beltway. Realistically, however, those policies are very much in the minds of local officials as they go about approving or rejecting developers' proposals for huge commercial and mixed-use projects.
In decidedly different ways, those controversial policies of the early- to mid-'70s have had a considerable effect on decisions affecting major projects that have been proposed recently for development in Fairfax and Prince George's counties.
There is barely a mention of slow-growth today, but the effects of previous policies still are etched in the memories of officials. To some, those policies stymied economic development considerably, and seemingly there is little stomach now for making decisions that will slow economic growth while other jurisdictions go after investment dollars and jobs. On the other hand, there are strong indications that, a desire for continued economic growth notwithstanding, a cautious approach still is favored by some.
With potentially millions of dollars in taxes and thousands of jobs on the line, officials must choose between economic development and concern over the impact of further growth on vital public issues such as traffic congestion and sewer capacity. It's a Catch-22.
Recent actions on major projects planned in Prince George's County and Fairfax County offer classic examples of two decidedly different approaches in addressing similar issues. Those actions also give us some idea of the dilemma faced by elected officials in charting a prudent course for further development of their respective counties.
In both counties, developers in recent months have presented proposals calling for development of massive projects of unprecedented scale for this area. All could have a major impact on traffic near the sites in question.
Ironically, Fairfax County, which found itself embroiled in the slow-growth controversy a few years ago, gave the thumbs-up signal to developers of a $550 million project called Tysons II and to an equallly ambitious $460 million project called Fair Lakes.
Critics of both projects argue that completing them will only exacerbate the county's already congested highways at critical intersections. But the developers moved to allay fears about traffic congestion by unveiling plans to spend millions of dollars for road improvements in the areas affected. Developers' plans to spend $14 million for road improvements near Tysons II notwithstanding, traffic in the Tysons Corner area of Fairfax County will be a recurring nightmare. The new roads will facilitate access to and egress from Tysons II, but nobody has yet explained how that will eliminate congestion on major nearby arteries during rush hour.
Traffic congestion, however, is not the critical factor that makes approval of Tysons II such a sensitive issue, say knowledgeable sources. What those sources fear is the very real possibility of a temporary space glut in the burgeoning Tysons Corner area of Fairfax County. Should a space glut develop, the impact could delay completion of Tysons II and its planned 13 high-rise office buildings, they point out. The real fear is that that might trigger the revival of a slow-growth movement.
In Prince George's County, meanwhile, there is a concern among some developers that the county -- though more aggressive in its approach to economic development in recent years -- may have reverted to a more conservative posture. Even though the Prince George's County Council has given its blessing to development of the Bay of Americas project on the banks of the Potomac River, lawmakers signaled a shift in thinking last week by approving rezoning for only part of the proposed Konterra new town.
In both cases, residents living near the sites of the proposed projects warned of the possible impact the developments would have on traffic flow, sewage capacity and possible flooding of adjacent properties.
"I think there was a general uneasiness about approving something that big in scope in its entirety," a county official said, referring to the proposed 2,000-acre Konterra project. "It certainly isn't indicative of an antidevelopment attitude. This council has taken a decidedly prodevelopment posture. It's kind of baffling."
On the other hand, the official conceded that the plans for Konterra (a proposed 20,000-resident town with nearly 9 million square feet of office space, 3.9 million square feet of industrial space and 1.8 million square feet of retail space) are "kind of ambivalent, too."
Only time and economic growth -- or a lack of it -- will prove whether Prince George's and Fairfax officials made the right decisions about these giant projects.