The Washington Post

Stewart’s changing stance on development in Prince William

Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center is a new development in Woodbridge that boasts high-end stores such as Wegmans and will soon feature luxury residences.

Prince William residents have longed for such amenities in a county where they remain sparse even as median household income is rising.

So it is no surprise that Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) plans to use Stonebridge as the backdrop for his announcement Wednesday that he will run for lieutenant governor.

Stonebridge, Stewart says, is emblematic of a new way forward for economic development in Prince William, an issue that was the focus of his reelection campaign last year.

But some former supporters say Stewart has lost his way on development issues.

No longer, critics say, is he seen as someone who would force developers to pay their fair share and help temper the feverish pace of home construction that has overwhelmed roads and schools.

“His campaign account shows he is now beholden to the development community,” said Jeanine Lawson, a former Stewart campaign volunteer. “It’s a disappointment because I thought he was principled on the issue.”

The project’s developers, District-based Roadside Development, contributed $10,000 to Stewart’s campaign account in the past couple of years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, or VPAP, which tracks money in politics.

In recent years, Stewart has greatly increased his totals from real estate and construction interests, according to VPAP. From that sector, Stewart raised $308,782 in 2010 and 2011, compared with $134,901 from 2003 through 2009.

Development issues in Prince William predate Stewart’s political career. He won a district supervisor seat in 2003, a special election for chairman in 2006, and the countywide regular race in 2007 and in November.

Prince William’s population grew to more than 400,000 in 2010, from about 281,000 in 2000, according to census data. At 43 percent, the county’s growth in that period was much higher than the statewide rate of 13 percent.

Many say that how and where those communities have been built have led to constant traffic jams, crowded classrooms and an image as a bedroom community that lacks character.

Although those issues took center stage during economic boom years, Prince William was one of the hardest hit by foreclosures in the state when the bubble burst in 2006 and 2007.

That’s when Stewart says he began to focus more on jobs and economic development.

“Some of that comes with the maturity of being in office and having to govern,” he said of his shift on development issues. “When you become chairman, you get a broader perspective. You understand . . . ‘We cannot provide for increased prosperity and increased job growth without promoting and helping businesses to grow.’ ”

Stewart says that in a free market, developers have a lot of latitude: “The only way is to work with [developers] and cut deals with them.”

Stewart’s campaign for the 2013 lieutenant governor’s election comes amid increased attention for the part-time position. Virginia’s 20-20 split among Senate Democrats and Republicans has put renewed focus on the position as Lt. Governor Bill Bolling (R) cast tie-breaking votes on non-budget issues this past session. Bolling is running for governor.

Pete Snyder, chairman of the state GOP’s VA Victory 2012, the Republicans’ coordinated campaign, also is reportedly considering a bid.

The position also can instantly elevate a career. “Anybody who runs for lieutenant governor these days, it’s presumed they’re positioning themselves for future office,” said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William).

Stewart, 43, lives in a colonial with his wife, Maria, and two young sons, in a Woodbridge area neighborhood dotted with similar houses.

Stewart moved to the area in 2001 from Fairfax County for essentially the same reason many do — more house for the money.

He was quick to make unchecked development a part of his first campaign.

When Stewart ran for Occoquan supervisor in 2003, among the qualifications he listed on a campaign flier was “Refuses to take money from developers.”

In an October 2006 Washington Post article on a campaign debate, Stewart blamed developers for virtually every problem the county confronted — traffic jams and dwindling open space, among them.

“If developers do not pay for development, you do,” he said at the forum.

In explaining his decision to run for chairman, Stewart told The Post at the time, “I looked around and saw all this development and said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ ”

Then there were his fliers and ads, wholly effective, say observers. “Make a developer mad,” one campaign flier read. “Uncontrolled growth is clogging our roads and destroying our way of life,” another said.

It was another issue, though, that would raise Stewart’s profile dramatically.

After hearing then-Supervisor John Stirrup (R-Gainseville) talk on CNN about his local initiative to combat illegal immigration, Stewart became an outspoken advocate of tougher measures and made it a centerpiece of his campaign in 2007.

The county’s anti-illegal immigration law, passed in 2007 and modified in 2008, became a touchstone in the national debate. The county checks the immigration status of all those arrested.

The issue has given Stewart a political leg up among conservatives that few other issues could have. He toured the state at times from 2008 to 2010, speaking to mostly Republican and tea party groups about the policy. They’re likely to remember his name if and when it appears on a statewide ballot, Stewart said

But with the economy recovering, the prospect of new development is once again a major concern among some county residents.

One development that came under scrutiny was Avendale, a proposal for about 300 homes that would be built in the county’s Rural Crescent, 80,000 acres set aside in the 1990s for preservation.

The crescent encourages redevelopment, preserves rural beauty and keeps sprawl at bay, advocates say.

So when Stewart decided to support the development’s eventual passage in August 2010, some former supporters were more than disappointed.

“The Avendale development was the exact template of what Corey Stewart . . . said would never happen again,” said Gary Friedman, Stewart’s former appointee to the county Planning Commission and a former adviser. Friedman is a Democrat but said he and Stewart used to agree on land-use issues.

“For those who had not been paying attention before, [Avendale is] the one that really got under a lot of people’s skin a really emotional way,” he said.

Stewart and other supporters said Avendale allowed a small number of homes in an area where it made sense.

Greg Letiecq, a conservative blogger who follows Prince William politics and was influential during the illegal immigration debates, said Stewart’s pro-business attitude and stance on illegal immigration will be advantageous in a statewide race.

“Everybody was throwing rocks at him, and he stuck to it,” Letiecq said of the illegal immigration debate. “Corey’s been kind of fearless.”

On the campaign trail, Stewart plans to talk about job growth and economic development, he said. Prince William has been ranked near the top in job growth in recent surveys, and Stewart said his efforts to keep real-estate tax rates low and build infrastructure can work statewide.

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