The Washington Post

The Tea Party vs. smart growth

One focus is Chesterfield County, the largest suburban area in the Richmond region, which has been beset with the woes of overbuilding and lax oversight for decades.

That doesn’t faze a Tea Party offspring that calls itself the Virginia Campaign for Liberty. Chesterfield County is going through the process of reconsidering its comprehensive plan, perhaps to avoid past mistakes.

In response, a woman named Donna Holt, who lives in the county and is executive director of the “liberty” group, says the plan could be an avenue to massive government intrusion in the form of “some very nefarious ordinances and regulations.”

Never mind that the county, which hasn’t reviewed its plan in some years, is nowhere close to passing any regulations and that its plan is more of a roadmap, the point is clear. Some Tea Party types, that eclectic bunch of gun fanatics, Patrick Henry impersonators, anti-tax mavens and Obama birthers, are piling on to make sure their individual and property rights are not violated.

Holt’s attacks show a basic lack of understanding of what’s been happening in Chesterfield, as well as other suburban and exurban counties such as Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford. The problem is not too many regulations but too few.

For years, laissez-faire mentalities took hold among planning commissions and boards of supervisors. Developers of gigantic, car-centric subdivisions got whatever they wanted. Strip-mall builders likewise built at will.

As a result, needed infrastructure and services were put into perpetual catch-up mode. The explosive suburban growth from the 1970s until the 2007-08 financial crisis severely tested schools, health, police and fire services. Fueled by cheap money and gravity-defying real estate assessments, huge suburban clusters sprang out of cow pastures with little rhyme or reason, other than a developer wanted something and supervisors had “growth” on their brains.

That’s what happened in Chesterfield. A Republican-controlled board almost never met a subdivision plan or mall they didn’t like. Never mind that Chesterfield is seriously imbalanced in that it doesn’t have a healthy mix of industries or commercial office space to help pay the tax bills, as Henrico County, a sister area, does.

It all came to a screeching halt with the subprime crisis. Since then, Chesterfield has been laying off teachers and other workers as it struggles to deal with real estate assessments that have been dropping for three years.

Holt, apparently, doesn’t get it. She was quoted as saying that the comprehensive plan could be some kind of pro-government-regulation Trojan horse. After all, as she points out, somewhere in Alabama, some homeowner was told he or she couldn’t grow a tomato garden because of government land-use rules.

The relevancy and veracity of that statement are hard to check. But you can check the “Virginia Campaign for Liberty” Web site to get a sense where the group is coming from. It is filled with pieces with such titles as “Global Totalitarian Dictatorship Invading a Town near You -- with Your Permission.” I had a little trouble connecting the dots.

The financial crisis has done us at least one favor in giving us time to rethink our sprawl-inducing policies. Bashing serious land-use planning to develop land in better and more efficient ways in the name of individual “freedom” is not constructive.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.


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