They jokingly tagged it "the Fairfax tot lot bill," a measure that would have allowed Fairfax County to continue to demand that housing developers guarantee construction of bicycle trails, tot lot playgrounds and "wet ponds" in some new subdivisions.
"What is a wet pond anyway?" chortled state Del. Franklin P. Hall (D-Richmond) during a legislative hearing. "Have you ever seen a pond that wasn't wet? They really are different up there in Fairfax."
For Fairfax officials, trying to cope with one of the fastest growth rates in the nation, the proposal to require developers to insure construction of wet ponds (drainage basins that catch storm water) was no laughing matter. Nor was the overall bill, one that would strip the county of many of its powers to require that subdivision developers post bonds for the completion of streets, sidewalks and drainage systems.
But this year, to the surprise of many lawmakers here, there has been a signficant difference in the way Fairfax County officials lobbied at the Virginia General Assembly.
This year, the Fairfax supervisors stayed out of Richmond.
The result, say those same officials and many legislators, is that Fairfax has fared much better during the current session than in recent years.
Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity said the logic in keeping the often-outspoken supervisors at home was simple: "You have politicians down there already who have their own constituencies. I'm not sure they want to see another politician telling them how to do it.
"Instead, we put a very direct and total presence of our staff down there," he said. "It wasn't politicians giving advice -- it was staff giving facts and statistics."
In the case of the "tot lot bill," the tactic worked. Fairfax dispatched its subdivision expert to the state Capitol to work out agreements on the bill. Although Fairfax still lost some powers over developers, the county retained what officials say were its most crucial controls through a series of compromises.
There have been other successes. As a result of the General Assembly's approval of a controversial new formula for dividing state road money, Fairfax will receive more state highway money than ever before.
But not a single supervisor trekked to Richmond to ask for more highway money this year. Instead, they lent legislators their staff members and computers to draft the strategy that eventually helped urban and suburban legislators win the road fund war over their rural colleagues.
Another proposal that would allow counties to spend an unlimited amount of local money on highways sailed through this year's session with little debate, a dramatic contrast to the acrimonious debates and defeats of past years when Fairfax legislators pushed the bill as one of the county's top priorities.
This year, at the urging of Fairfax legislators, the measure was introduced by a Chesterfield County delegate. "We didn't want to send out any red lights by drawing attention to the fact this was another Fairfax bill," one legislator said.
The county government's staffers have won kudos from downstate legislators. "Their staff person was excellent to deal with," said Del. Ralph L. Axsell Jr. (D-Henrico), sponsor of the subdivision bonding bill. "The problems were coming from those board members the supervisors up there."
Other people, including a number of Fairfax legislators, agree that the supervisors often have proved to be more a hindrance than a help in past sessions. "They proceed as though they believe the Fairfax solution is necessary to keep the Commonwealth from crumbling," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax). "They come down here as though they're moving into enemy territory."
"The Board of Supervisors think we're they're servants," said state Del. Gladys B. Keating, another Fairfax Democrat. "We're the peons. There is no interplay. They demand . . . .
"My county has been a culprit on many occasions," Keating told her fellow lawmakers as they were considering the "tot lot bill" this year. "I make no excuses for my county."
The debate between local officials and legislators is an annual rite in Richmond, a political tug of war that pits the officials -- especially those from the Washington suburbs -- against conservative legislators who cling fiercely to their authority to regulate virtually everything local governments do.
Each year hundreds of supervisors, council members, mayors and sheriffs descend on the legislature, seeking permission for everything from raising taxes to regulating electric fences. Of all the local officials, those from wealthy suburban Northern Virginia, with their often-aggressive lobbying and their penchant for issues that antagonize rural lawmakers, have been favorite targets for the lawmakers' disdain.
As a result, some Northern Virginia legislators say they have become more reticent to sponsor some legislation pushed by local officials. "There was a time that if they wanted something bad enough, I would put it in," said Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria). "Now, if I know it's not going to see the light of day and will diminish our credibility, I won't do it."
When Arlington County officials asked their state legislators to sponsor a bill this year that would permit the county to outlaw overgrown weeds, the county officials got little more than a few groans and snickers.
"They said it didn't stand a chance," said Elizabeth Gowran, the county's lobbyist, who led legislators on a tour of some of Arlington's scraggliest yards last fall trying to muster support for the measure. "They said it wasn't worth the time and money to have the bill printed . . . . One person's weed is another's flower."
Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington) put it another way. "It's a man's inalienable right not to cut his private grass if he doesn't want to," she said.