Committee delays smart-growth bills

Smart-growth advocates watched Tuesday as the building lobby put off several ordinances to require adequate public facilities.

The Senate Local Government Committee unanimously voted to send the ordinances to a growth study commission chaired by Fairfax Delegate Robert Hull, D-38th District, and Midlothian Sen. John Watkins, R-10th District.

Proponents of adequate public facility ordinances say they are used by 20 other states to allow localities to defer approval of housing until plans for schools, roads, public safety, sewer and water facilities are in place to support the new development.

The building industry said the measures would be used to stop housing construction, which during the recession has been one of the bright spots in the economy.

Fairfax City Sen. Leslie Byrne, D-34th District, said her bill is similar to one she introduced in 1991 in the House after it conducted a study. “We’re going to study it for another 12 years,” she said. “The arguments made 10 years ago are the same ones being made today. Nothing has changed except the air is getting dirtier and the schools are more crowded.”

A frustrated Prince William Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs, R-Occoquan, left before the hearing was over without testifying because not enough time was given.

“[The bill] is completely fair to both sides and we don’t know how a better compromise could come out of yet another year of study,” said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Schwartz and Byrne said they were trumped by Bill Thomas, a lobbyist for Reed Smith LLP in Richmond, who stood to the side of Byrne as she testified, not saying anything. His presence spoke volumes to the committee because he is a powerful Democratic fund-raiser and state land-use attorney whose influence in the committee is “enormous,” Byrne said. “He was there in ’91, he is there today,” she said.

Thomas is influential enough that he often calls legislators from their seats to talk to them in committee. Byrne said campaign funding was at stake in today’s vote and the referral to a study got them out of a difficult position.

Coinciding with today’s hearing was the release of a Mason-Dixon poll commissioned by Schwartz’s group and others that found 76 percent of respondents support the legislature giving localities ways to manage growth and 78 percent supported adequate public facility ordinances. In Northern Virginia, the favorable rate was 79 percent for ways to manage growth and 76 percent for adequate public facilities ordinances.

Virginia Home Builders Association lobbyist Michael Toalson said if the question had been posed as meaning higher cost housing or fewer housing choices, which his group says the new rules would lead to, the results of the poll would have been exactly opposite.

Both sides agreed new sources of revenue are needed by localities to deal with growth.

Committee member Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, D-31st District, of Arlington, said Virginia should look at what other states are doing and also look at its overall tax structure before changing its development process.

Toalson said tax restructuring by the state is not in sight. Localities remain without any new revenue growth, meaning the effect of these rules would be to stop growth because there is not way to pay for infrastructure, he said.

Byrne said the National Association of Home Builders supports adequate public facility ordinances because they take care of the effects of growth. What will happen without them is localities will rely on the tools they already have.

“If you don’t want to see more downzonings, if you don’t want to see things that make developers angry, then we have got to put something in place that allows the timing growth,” Byrne said. “There’s going to be more Loudouns saying enough is enough.”

The bills before the committee varied on how stringent they were. Williamsburg Sen. Thomas Norment, R-3rd District, had a bill that did not have Byrne’s 12-year deadline for building the adequate public facilities. Griggs said that deadline would be difficult for Prince William to meet with 34,000 houses “in the pipeline.”

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