John Herrity's crushing defeat in last week's election for chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is the ultimate measure of how poorly he read the mood of the electorate. Herrity wasn't alone, however, in his obviously flawed assessment. With financial and philosophical support from powerful business leaders in the county, Herrity mistakenly reduced the real issues in the election to a gross oversimplification.
The issues, as voters overwhelmingly demonstrated, weren't his differences with "St. Audrey" Moore, as Herrity derisively referred to his opponent, who went on to be elected chairman of the board of supervisors. Voters in Fairfax County also weren't so naive as to make the election a contest between pro- and antibusiness camps.
Voters wrote, instead, a powerful commentary on the impact that mushrooming development is having on their county. An objective reading of election results isn't likely to show an antibusiness, no-growth sentiment among voters.
Rather, Fairfax County voters unequivocally stated the agenda they expect elected officials and business to follow in coming years: Create a better environment for sustained economic growth; develop and implement comprehensive plans in support of balanced commercial and residential interests; design a better mix of radial and feeder roads to facilitate commuter travel as well as commercial development; adopt land-use policies that match the capacity of transportation facilities; and encourage development, but not at the expense of the quality of life in Fairfax County.
A reading of the post mortems that are being recorded in the aftermath of Herrity's defeat shows that some people in the county's business community apparently still are unable to comprehend the clear statement by voters. Moore is still perceived by many as a threat to business. Some executives worry, in fact, that the election of a new board will have a "chilling effect" on business-attraction efforts.
By clinging doggedly to a paranoid and adversarial view of the new board of supervisors, however, Fairfax County's business community is squandering an opportunity to assert its leadership in forging a new partnership. And a new partnership is precisely what's needed to plan the next phase of the county's growth.
Like so many other suburban communities, Fairfax County has evolved in just a few years from a largely rural subdivision to a sprawling urban entity that is being forced to deal with explosive commercial and residential development.
Problems associated with explosive growth aren't unique, however, to Fairfax County. Concerns about the impact of high-density commercial development, congested traffic facilities and the rights of developers are at the top of agendas of elected officials and business advocacy groups in other communities across the country.
Indeed, economic development officials in New Jersey addressed those very issues at a recent conference, according to the National Council for Urban Economic Development. The major topic of the conference, in fact, was "the need to maintain balanced and equitable growth in the face of skyrocketing development, which has brought a series of growth problems to the state's suburban communities."
Calls for balanced growth in Fairfax County, however, are regarded by some as attempts to stifle business development. Attempts to achieve balanced growth supposedly would hurt the county's development industry. If there is a slowdown in development, the argument goes, the supply of commercial office space would decline, driving up rental rates and increasing business costs.
Consider the alternatives. Runaway development, without regard for the consequences, could lead to an oversupply of office space. That is already occurring in some areas. Unlimited high-density development in the absence of provisions for improved transportation facilities will add to congestion, delays and the cost of doing business.
Fairfax County business leaders agreed with Herrity that transportation was the major issue in last week's election. No doubt it is an issue and will be for several years. But it has to be put in proper context.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) did as much in an analysis a year ago when it noted that Northern Virginia isn't keeping pace with its "need for improved transportation caused by rapid growth and development." Even if all the planned highway facilities in a 20-year plan are completed, COG warned, the level of service those facilities will provide in the year 2005 will be considerably lower than that provided by the highway system in 1980.
The point that too many in the business community seem to be missing is that Fairfax County needs to catch its breath. Skyrocketing development has put a tremendous strain on the county's infrastructure. Relieving the strain will require enlightened leadership in a partnership of the county's public and private sector.
Last week's election has produced a clean slate on which county officials and business leaders can write a model program for solving suburban growth problems. That, in the long run, should enhance the business climate in the county -- not just for existing firms, but for companies that may consider moving there.