Sprawl in Virginia

jobs are projected to increase most on the Peninsula and east of the Elizabeth River, but housing will grow most on the southwest side of Hampton Roads - increasing the demand for more transportation funding to build/expand bridges/tunnels in the region
jobs are projected to increase most on the Peninsula and east of the Elizabeth River, but housing will grow most on the southwest side of Hampton Roads - increasing the demand for more transportation funding to build/expand bridges/tunnels in the regio
Source: Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, Commonwealth Transportation Board presentation (July 28, 2016, p.12)
A plant in the wrong place is...
...a weed.
A pedestrian in the wrong place is...
... a jaywalker.
A housing development in the wrong place is...
...sprawl.

But what's the "wrong place" for housing?

Perhaps it's easier to identify the right place, at least from a land use planning perspective. Housing built in an area with adequate public facilities - schools, sewers, water pipelines, police stations, firehouses, libraries, parks, hospitals, and of course roads - will minimize the increased burden on a community. Housing built in isolation, on farms in the rural countryside away from the community's infrastructure for services, will require new and expensive construction. School buses will have longer trips, sheriff patrols will be extended, and other common costs supported by taxes will increase.

Most fundamentally, housing that is built far from where people work will require an investment in roads. Highway construction requires massive investment of tax dollars, and transforms the landscape - physically and politically.

In rural Accomack County, 79% of the residents with a job work in the county; only 21% commute outside the county to their job. In contrast, Prince William County is a "bedroom" community with relatively low-cost housing near high-paying jobs in Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland. Only 34% of the workers in Prince William County have found jobs within that political jurisdiction. Two-thirds of the employed residents must commute to work in another area, requiring a regional approach to solving the transportation challenge. (See the Accomack and Prince William commuting statistics from the Census 2000 County-To-County Worker Flow Files.)

So sprawl is inefficient development with relatively high costs for each unit built. Because those costs are imposed on others in the community, raising the taxes of existing residents to accommodate newcomers, sprawl is a political issue in Virginia. Low tax and "save the environment" advocates find a common cause in opposing new roads, so they tend to form the nucleus of the smart growth movement advocating changes in existing economic subsidies and increased government restrictions on building new housing in areas far from jobs.

There's an old saying that "politics makes strange bedfellows." Smart-growth advocates may have very different backgrounds and view the role of government very differently, but they share a common support for logical, efficient planning backed by state and local regulations that limit the costs on existing residents by development for new residents. The most ambitious planners suggest urban growth boundaries could be adopted by counties and cities that form metropolitan regions. Growth would be encouraged within the agreed-upon boundaries, and discouraged in rural areas.

Suggesting the government limit the development potential of private property is controversial. Nonetheless, zoning has been commonplace for 80 years now, and both Oregon and Hawaii adopted comprehensive state-managed land use planning processes 30 years ago. The Oregon initiative was led not by politically-connected lawyers or newly-arrived social activists, but by old-line farmers seeking to preserve their agricultural life. They knew from experience that, when suburban homes are built adjacent to a farm, the new neighbors complain about the smell of fertilizers and the dust from plowing. They knew from experience how free-running dogs and cats arrive along with new suburban homes on quarter-acre lots, and how difficult it can be to move tractors and other farm equipment through suburban traffic.

Ideally, development could be planned to steer housing and commercial construction to areas where the soils were relatively poor, preserving the most-valuable farmland. Buffer zones between parcels intended for very different uses could be designed to minimize incompatible activities, so industrial plants are not built next to elementary schools and townhomes are not located next to dairy farms.

More commonly in Virginia, individual developers are granted permission to subdivide parcels and the private sector determines what parcels will be developed, and when those parcels will be developed. Counties and cities have some controls via planning and zoning ordinances and building codes, but the leverage is limited. Under a legal doctrine known as the Dillon Rule (named for Judge John Dillon, an Iowa Supreme Court Justice), Virginia's local communities have no authority to control land use unless specifically granted that authority by the General Assembly.

Virginia's counties have the authority to require "proffers" before agreeing to development proposals. In some fast-growing counties, builders may proffer $30,000 or more per house before receiving approvals to build new subdivisions.

However, counties do not have authority to require developers to delay construction until "adequate public facilities" (schools, roads, libraries, parks, etc.) have been built. Parcels may be developed and new residents move to a subdivision years or even decades before counties can build the infrastructure to reduce congestion on highways, at ballfields, etc.

Bye Bye Virginia Farmland - Hello McDonalds?

Local Government and Land Use

Rail (Metro) to Dulles Airport

Sprawl and Traffic Congestion

The Prince William County Example

Links

Often, where you stand (on a policy issue) depends on where you sit (in a job). That may apply as well to how you see new development. There's an old, cynical joke: What's the difference between an environmentalist and a developer?
A developer is someone who wants to build a house on the shores of the lake... while an environmentalist is someone who already has a house on the shore.


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