Act, don’t study

Things got a little edgy in Richmond Tuesday when a Senate committee brushed aside four bills designed to slow urban sprawl, sending them to a commission that is perpetually studying the topic. The bills dealt mainly with giving localities a chance to check residential growth until adequate roads and schools are built. The legislation was sent instead to the “Growth Commission” which has been studying sprawl ever since George Washington cut down a few cherry trees to build a new smokehouse at Mount Vernon.

At least one senator said she’s had enough. Sen. Leslie Byrne, D-Fairfax, blamed the demise of the legislation on nervous lawmakers including members of the Senate Local Government which tabled the bills who are afraid that going against the home building and real estate lobby will jeopardize thousands in campaign dollars. By sending the bills to the commission for more study, Byrne said it gets lawmakers out of a bind until after the November elections.

“We’re going to study it for another 12 years,” Byrne said, referring to similar legislation that was brushed aside when she was in the House of Delegates in 1991. “The arguments made 10 years ago are the same ones being made today.”

She has a point. The development community has a strong lobby in Richmond and plenty of money to spread around since it appears to be the only sector of the economy that has withstood the weak economy. Placing restrictions on home construction, they say, will stall the real estate development industry and make a tight housing market even worse.

At the center of this argument are state lawmakers who aren’t too thrilled at dealing with sprawl issues. Their willingness to push the decision to raise sales taxes onto the voters last year is proof of that. But forces against sprawl are organizing. This includes liberals, such as Byrne, along with conservatives like Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, and taxpayer and environmental organizations. This team organized to defeat the sales tax referendum last fall and are beginning to press the General Assembly for local control over sprawl issues.

If members of the Senate Local Government Committee are opposed to these local options, they should vote that way in committee instead of sending such bills to the “Growth Commission.” The same goes for lawmakers in the House.

Many are upset that the development lobby has the resources to dangle reelection campaign money in front of state lawmakers but they have every right to do so. Campaign donations are a means of political free speech regardless of who is raising and spending the money. It’s the voter’s duty, however, to stay informed and monitor who is getting this money. They should then vote accordingly.

A number of bills seeking to give local governments broader control over a variety of issues have been funneled into commissions for “more study” this year. Studying an issue doesn’t make it go away, but it apparently gets politicians through an election cycle. And that’s too bad.

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