Claiming that Stafford County has become the most difficult community in Northern Virginia in which to get building projects approved, a group of developers and builders has formed an advocacy organization with paid staff, a Web site and a newsletter -- just in time for the fall election campaign, in which four of seven supervisor seats are up.
Members of the Stafford Council for Progress say officials in Stafford, one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, haven't accepted that it must absorb "its fair share" of the people coming to the region.
Stafford County's population grew 24 percent from 2000 to 2004, compared with a 7 percent gain for the Washington region overall. Some members of the group, which so far numbers about 30, compare Stafford to Loudoun County, saying officials' rejection of dense projects in the targeted growth areas is forcing builders into rural areas and creating sprawl by putting homes far from roads and water and sewer services.
"We have never, as an industry, been able to convince Stafford County that growth is coming," said Robert Berner, vice president of operations for Garrett Development Corp., which has done projects from the Carolinas through Stafford and Fairfax counties and into suburban Maryland. "It's rolling down [Interstate] 95, and you need to plan for it. You don't need to resist it; you need to plan for it."
County Supervisor Pete Fields (D), chairman of a group of Virginia communities trying to cope with rapid growth, said the idea that supervisors are forcing developers into rural areas is "ludicrous." There are 45,400 undeveloped parcels available in the designated growth areas.
"They want what they want and to add it wherever they want," said Fields, who represents the George Washington District.
It is unclear what influence the developers' group -- whose members have various projects before the County Board of Supervisors -- will have, but it is the most organized public effort the industry has made in the fast-growing Fredericksburg region. The Council for Progress is a nonprofit organization and thus legally can't endorse candidates. Members say they are bipartisan. The group has a Web site, www.staffordcouncilforprogress.com, and its first newsletter is expected to be out mid-month. It is funded by contributions from members.
Stafford, just south of Prince William County, has nearly doubled in population since 1990 -- from 61,000 to 114,700 last year. The county has been trying desperately to attract middle- and upper-class jobs and retail to take some of the tax burden off homeowners and reduce the number of people commuting to Washington. However, traffic is increasing faster than jobs, and some say the board is politically paralyzed with three Democrats, three Republicans and one independent. The county's comprehensive plan has not been updated significantly in a decade, and efforts to rewrite rural development rules have failed nearly annually since 2000.
"In Stafford, we have inertia. Two parties vying for control pretty much face one another and nothing happens, no downzonings or change in policy," said Clark Leming, a Stafford land-use lawyer who helped form the new council. "This is now viewed as the most difficult county to get any kind of application through -- not just rezonings, site plans, preliminary plans . . . even a building permit for a back deck."
Development has increased outside the county's targeted growth zones, and rural areas now account for 30 percent of the county's new homes, up from 10 percent in 1998. Leming said this increase in the number of homes on rural, three-acre lots -- the minimum size on agriculturally zoned land -- creates "classic sprawl." Most of the available property in the growth areas belongs to larger builders, he said. The current situation "hurts the little builder more than the big builder."
Challengers selected in last month's primaries had campaigned mainly on growth issues.
Mark Dudenhefer, a Republican who is challenging board Chairman Gary Pash (D) in the Garrisonville District, lost a teenage daughter in a one-car accident on a winding rural road and has focused on trying to get more money from the state and developers for transportation improvements.
Republican Paul Milde has spoken about the importance of preservation and founded a group to preserve a 4,000-acre peninsula called Crow's Nest, on a tributary of the Potomac River. Milde is challenging Democrat Kandy Hilliard for the Aquia District seat.
Independent Joe Brito is challenging Republican Gary Snellings in the Hartwood District, and Democrat George Schwartz is running against Republican Mark Osborn, who represents Falmouth.
"Hopefully, the election will bring a more evenly balanced approach to planning in Stafford," said Richard Tremblay, a former planning director for the county now with the Fredericksburg-based developer Silver Cos.