Virginia's General Assembly is considering proposals that would hand localities powerful tools to slow the rapid growth that has affected the economies, environments and services in many parts of the state.
Legislators have submitted bills that would allow local governments to halt home construction until they could afford to build schools, roads and other basic services for new residents. There are also proposals to impose impact fees on developers to help create those services.
Similar measures have been proposed -- and easily defeated -- but lawmakers on both sides of the issue say that such proposals have their best chance for success this year. They say a political consensus is building that too many homes are being constructed too quickly in too many places.
Advocates of controlled growth claimed victory in November when voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads defeated proposals to raise the sales tax so more roads and transit lines could be built. They said they will press their case this fall, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the Nov. 4 ballot.
William J. Howell, the Stafford County Republican just elected speaker of the House, has long been a supporter of growth controls. Howell and Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, another Stafford Republican, have made legislation for adequate public facilities a priority this year.
"You couldn't have done this last year; you wouldn't even be thinking about it," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), a referendum opponent and sponsor of several growth-control measures.
Localities now negotiate with developers over fees, called proffers, to offset the public cost of construction. But proffers apply only to rezoning requests, so counties are unable to collect money for much of the building that occurs.
As Northern Virginia became one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, local leaders pushed for stronger powers to stem the rush of residents and their strain on services. But Virginia requires localities to get permission from the state before instituting such laws.
"We need to be able to have the ability to grow according to our ability to pay for our capital improvement program," said Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R), who started the Virginia Coalition of High-Growth Communities to push for growth controls.
During the past few decades, several Maryland counties in the Washington suburbs have adopted various measures intended to create adequate public facilities.
Environmentalists, local governments and other supporters say an adequate public facilities measure is needed in Virginia to flip the burden of creating services from current residents to the new homeowners who precipitate the need. They also say the measure would be an antidote to skyrocketing property taxes.
Builders, property rights advocates and other opponents counter that such a measure would violate property rights, freeze economic development and eliminate affordable housing. Some also worry that an adequate public facilities regulation could easily be manipulated by the whims of local officials. They fear no growth, not just slow growth.
"There is no question in my mind that [slow-growth] measures would bring the economies of the 25 fastest-growing localities in the state to a complete halt," said Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia. "Had it not been for our industry in the last two years, the state and nation would likely be in full recession."
Despite a growing sense of optimism among backers of growth controls, they know that previous attempts to pass similar legislation have routinely met with quick defeat, and any such measures will be difficult to push through this year.
"I think it's going to be awfully tough," Howell said.
In his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) alluded to a willingness to work with localities on some growth issues, but he has not taken a position on specific measures.
"We need to let the legislature work on this and bring its collective wisdom to bear and see what emerges," said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Warner.
Marshall's measures include a combination adequate public facilities and impact fee bill that would allow developers to pay for infrastructure if they do not want to wait for the county to do it. Another would give localities in Northern Virginia the power to levy transportation impact fees on big-box retailers, the first commercial growth control proposed in the commonwealth, Marshall said.
"We're not just subsidizing their business," Marshall said, "we're allowing them to rob and steal family time from my constituents. I'm sorry, that's wrong."
Howell and Chichester are jointly sponsoring an adequate public facilities bill that would apply only to jurisdictions they represent, including Fauquier, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties and the City of Fredericksburg. Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., a Republican from fast-growing James City County, has submitted an adequate public facilities bill that would apply to high-growth communities across the state.
Toalson said that localities control the use of their land and that any matter of overbuilding is a failure in planning and not something the state ought to be called on to remedy. "This is just makeup because they have failed in one of their core responsibilities," he said.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, agreed that the problem stems from bad decisions by previous local governments, but he said that current ones "have no tool to handle already zoned land."
"The bottom line is the General Assembly and governor need to debate the issue of growth, its impact on Virginia's fiscal situation and the type and location of growth we're getting," he said.