Elections reflect anti-growth

MANASSAS — Election Day turned out to be a sleepy affair in Manassas this spring, with only 11 percent of registered voters showing up at the polls and casting ballots in a race that ended up keeping three incumbent council members in office.

Meanwhile, a revolution was taking place to the north.

More than 30 percent of the city of Fairfax’s registered voters flocked to the polls and ousted an incumbent mayor of 12 years.

“There certainly is a mood in Northern Virginia that tends to be anti-growth. And my opponent effectively turned the election into a growth versus anti-growth referendum,” said Mayor John Mason, who lost to Councilman Robert Lederer by a margin of 26 percentage points.

Fairfax is closer to Washington, D.C. But with Manassas growing at an ever faster rate, the city may see an anti-development movement of its own someday.

“There could be. Though, I think we did a better job because we had a more advanced warning of what was coming,” said Roger Snyder, Manassas’ community development director.

While running against Mason, the victorious Lederer spoke of the traffic jams, a government that failed to be inclusive and a city that used to be but was no more. The message was “intelligent growth, not anti-growth,” according to Lederer.

“I think we had the right message. And it was a message that caught the interest of the citizens,” Lederer said.

Lederer’s campaign was one of many in Northern Virginia this spring that spoke to frustrations stemming from traffic jams and urban sprawl.

In Leesburg, Vice Mayor Kristen C. Umstadd unseated Mayor B.J. Webb, who had advocated expanding the city limits to encourage new housing development. In Purcellville, W. T. “Bill” Druhan Jr. won the mayor’s office after calling for a slowdown in economic growth.

Snyder believes smart planning has spared Manassas much of the turmoil experienced in neighboring jurisdictions.

The construction of the Va. 234 bypass, for example, helped direct traffic away from the Manassas’s downtown.

In contrast, Fairfax never built such a bypass. Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, said Fairfax residents blamed the traffic on increased development when the real cause was commuters passing through.

“The mayor can’t do anything about it,” he said.

Fuller said he believes halting or slowing down housing developments is destructive because the new growth pays for residents living in older homes that generate less revenue.

“I know from looking at the budget in Fairfax that the city is comfortable,” he said.

The problem, Fuller said, isn’t growth itself but the need to find better places to put that growth.

Fuller gives Prince William County higher markings than some of its neighbors.

“Prince William County is attempting to be more selective. It is encouraging more high density growth and has a better mix,” he said.

Directing development away from county’s Rural Crescent, which is made up of 80,000 acres running from the Quantico Marine Corps base to the Loudoun County line, was smart, he said, because there was no existing infrastructure in the area.

The creation of [email protected] William, a high-tech business park west of Manassas, was another example of good planning because it allowed the county more leeway in what kind of businesses it welcomed in, he said.

With the area economy continuing to grow, more smart choices will have to be made.

“Manassas and Prince William County are in the catbird seat. And they have to be careful not to spoil it,” Fuller said.

Fuller projects that the greater Washington, D.C., area will have 1 million more people and 800,000 more jobs by 2020. That will mean a need for more homes and more infrastructure to support the people living in those homes.

Between 1990 and 2000, Manassas saw a 26.6 percent jump in population, giving it a population density of 3,514 people per square mile, a number almost identical to Fairfax. And there is more growth coming.

“A few people can stir things up. And the people who are asleep at the switch get left behind,” Fuller said.

Mason had his own advice for elected officials in Manassas: “Go slow.”

Staff writer Chris Newmarker can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 119.

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