If local officials could make whatever laws they wish, they would impose new taxes, slow the pace of growth and make developers pay for the services their new communities require.
But because Virginia limits the types of laws that local governments can pass, Northern Virginia leaders are heading to this month's General Assembly session with the goal of gaining approval to do what they think is necessary to raise money for schools, control growth and ease the tax burden on property owners.
"It's awful tough for us to solve local challenges because the state is always in control of giving solutions to our challenges," said Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large). "That's not a good way to run things."
Many local and state officials predict that the General Assembly session starting Wednesday will likely be dominated by efforts to close a $1.2 billion budget shortfall. In that battle, officials across Northern Virginia agree that they will seek to protect, and possibly increase, school funding as well as try to find more money to ease the region's growing traffic problems.
The fallout from the state's budget problems has left local officials yearning for a discussion about how the state is run and how its revenue is forecast.
"The biggest thing that Prince William as well as other jurisdictions need is for the state to get a grip on its financial matters," said Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large). "This crisis could have precipitated a meaningful dialogue about the state's programs and finances, but it does not appear that that will happen in this session."
In many ways, the search for more local power from Richmond is an annual pilgrimage for area leaders -- one that has rarely borne much success. But local leaders are hopeful that this year will be different after the sound defeat Nov. 5 of the proposal to raise taxes for transportation in Northern Virginia. Voter rejection of the proposal was widely interpreted as a cry for local controls on development. The other plea that has been emanating from the region is for relief from escalating real estate taxes.
In addition, this is an election year, with all 140 seats in the General Assembly on November's ballot. Local officials are hoping the prospect of a campaign will compel state lawmakers to be more attentive to residents' concerns.
"Every one of them is going to face reelection," said Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence). "Their voters and my voters will hear local government [officials] say that the General Assembly not only left us a bag of coal but that they didn't even bother addressing how we get out of this morass. If I were a General Assembly member, that would concern me greatly."
In Alexandria and Fairfax and Arlington counties, officials want to gain more authority to establish taxes.
Alexandria would like to increase the gas tax to fund public transit, raise the recordation tax on property transactions to preserve open space and institute a tax on movie tickets.
Fairfax and Arlington leaders said they would like some of the same taxing options that cities have, such as levies on cigarettes and restaurant meals. Those levies would enable governments to lessen real estate taxes, officials said, while providing a level of diversification that would make the quality of services less dependent on the fluctuations of the real estate market.
"The frustration for us at the local level is having more and more responsibility to meet and relying on one tax element," said Chris Zimmerman, former chairman of the Arlington County Board. "We've got to have some flexibility to do our work."
As the inner part of Northern Virginia grows more urban, leaders also are seeking to meet challenges traditionally confined to large cities. Chief among those is a clarification of crosswalk laws to ensure pedestrian safety and more power to regulate what kinds of vehicles and boats can be parked on residential streets.
The issues in the outer counties continue to revolve around controlling growth. Loudoun leaders are pushing for an adequate public facilities measure, which would require that development be scheduled in coordination with the jurisdiction's ability to provide support services. York said the county also would like the authority to charge impact fees so that development pays for the schools, roads and other services it requires.
Although not specifying particular measures, Prince William County officials also desire broader powers to make developers pay for services. "We would obviously like to see local authority expanded," Connaughton said. "As we have seen over and over, we are the ones who financially have to cope with the increases in population and demands for services, and our tools to deal with that right now are fairly limited."