As the new General Assembly session approaches, Fairfax County is preparing to take on powerful developers in its quest to seize control of growth and obtain more funding for new roads and schools.
At issue are two proposed measures that would boost the county's leverage in dealing with builders.
The Board of Supervisors signaled its intent at its last regular meeting on Dec. 9, when it voted unanimously to join the Virginia Coalition of High-Growth Communities, an alliance of 25 cities and counties that was formed four years ago to combat sprawl and better manage the pace of development. Prince William County subsequently joined the coalition, which was founded by Scott K. York (R-At Large), chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and a self-described "sprawl-buster."
The coalition plans to stage an intensive lobbying campaign in Richmond to promote passage of a bill, known as an "adequate public facilities ordinance," that would allow localities to delay development until the infrastructure to support it could be built. Such ordinances exist in other states, including Maryland, but have long been stymied in Virginia.
Developers strongly oppose such an ordinance, arguing that it would drive up the cost of housing. Slow-growth advocates charge that developers want to avoid additional expenses and are exerting undue influence over the General Assembly by pouring millions of dollars into the campaigns of delegates and senators. The state's lawmakers are up for reelection in November.
The motion to enlist Fairfax in the coalition was put forward by Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who has battled for greater control of development in the Washington area's largest jurisdiction.
Asked why he made the motion, Kauffman deadpanned, "I wanted to ensure that I never got another nickel from a developer."
For years, Fairfax "has been working to secure better growth-management tools," Kauffman added. "Now it appears that with the upcoming session of the General Assembly, there's a real chance that an adequate public facilities ordinance and other tools may be on the table."
The county is also seeking legislation that would allow it to establish a "transferable development rights" program. Such a program essentially transfers density from one site to another, allowing builders to obtain higher-density development in one area if they settle for lower density in another.
Both the public facilities and development rights initiatives would give the county additional means to extract proffers from developers. Under the current system, proffers are routinely negotiated when builders seek zoning changes. In return for approving a change, the county can secure the builder's commitment to improve a road, contribute money or land for a new school or build a community center, for example.
For the most part, proffers now are "the only means by which localities can cajole developers to help bear some of the excess burden they bring on the taxpayers," according to the Fair Growth Coalition, an anti-sprawl group based in Fredericksburg. "But proffers are voluntary and almost always woefully inadequate. And if the property is already zoned for the desired type of development, proffers cannot be levied at all."
Kauffman described the proffer system as "a tool we have been fortunate to have and have effectively used. But there's a large portion of development in the county that remains by right, and we have no ability to phase that," he said.
One recent example, he said, was the construction of 157 upscale townhouses on 17 acres in his district, at Franconia and Telegraph roads. The developer, Diane Cox Basheer Communities Inc., built the townhouses "with no significant contribution toward schools or roads," thereby aggravating traffic congestion and school crowding in the area, Kauffman said.
"First the trees went, then the hill went," Kauffman said. "Every time I went to the grocery store, folks wanted to know what the blank I was thinking of when it was approved." But the site had been rezoned for townhouses decades ago and "finally became economically viable to develop," he said.
Diane Cox Basheer, founder and president of the company and president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, disputed that, saying the county did obtain proffers when the property was "downzoned" in 1996 to have fewer larger townhouses.
At the county's request, she said, "we contributed a sum toward the widening of Franconia Road" and built a "significant regional stormwater management pond." She could not recall the amount of the contributions. The community, called Governor's Hill, was completed a year ago, but the Virginia Department of Transportation still has not widened the road.
Basheer said that the existing proffer system is adequate and that her association plans to fight the proposals for adequate public facilities and transferable development rights.
The General Assembly will convene Jan. 8.
"The builders association really opposes any form of adequate public facilities [ordinance] because we are concerned that it affects property values and property rights," she said. "What might appear to be a quick solution is not. It would have dire financial consequences to property owners throughout Virginia if the state approves this form of regulation."