Taxpayers foot the bill for unchecked growth

It?s election season again and it also happens to be time to update the 1998 Comprehensive Land Use Plan. So, as one might imagine, there are a number of candidates claiming to be supporters of smart-growth.

Of course ?smart? growth depends on your perspective. To many politicians smart-growth means doing whatever is in their best interest to ensure that campaign contributions don?t stop flowing from developers.

Growth is inevitable. As of December of 2002 Prince William had 110,338 housing units. It projects 123,100 housing units by the year 2010. A significant underestimate if you ask me, as the county added 12,228 units since April of 2000.

Growth needs to be addressed from at least three angles: location, density, and subsidization. Location concerns the placement of higher densities of growth at transit points, as well as the appropriate co-mingling of offices, retail and living space.

Density is important to ensure that only a certain number of housing units per acre (h.u./acre) are permitted to be built when the road system will not meet a predefined ?level of service.? And subsidization refers to the problem of new development not paying for itself, thereby becoming a greater burden on current taxpayers.

I plan on addressing some of these issues in more detail in future columns.

But for now, let?s start with subsidization. Developers and pro-growth supporters will tell you that additional housing pays for itself. Of course, they are wrong.

In Prince William, the average assessed value per housing unit in 2003 was $220,165. There are approximately 2.8 people residing in each housing unit. The cost for services (considering only the General Fund budget) is $1,740 per person. At $1.16 per $100 of assessed value the average residential tax bill is $2,553. This means that county services cost approximately $4,872 per housing unit; clearly a significant deficit.

Of course, these numbers don?t consider the sales tax intake (which is negligible) or the fact that a truer measure of the cost of government services would be the total county budget.

In January of 2002 the county supervisors voted in favor of proffers that are supposed to cover 100 percent of the costs of public facilities for new homes zoned from that point forward. The total comes to $17,260 per housing unit. Of that, $8,287 is dedicated to schools. However, it is my understanding that the true cost of additional capacity per new student is approximately $18,000. And I am not sure how capital funding received by the county from the state and federal governments, then passed along to developers as credits, impacts this formula.

Unfortunately this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are between 34,000 and 40,000 housing units previously zoned that don?t require developers to cover county costs through proffers or impact fees, some going back as far as the 1950s.

Last year several members of the board attempted to change this by voting on a measure that would give the county the power to make changes to those previously approved housing units. This was rejected by the pro-growth contingent of the Board of Supervisors, frequently referred to as the ?gang of five.?

Yes, this would meet resistance from the developer-friendly Virginia General Assembly, which would have had to pass an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance for it to be legal, but it would have been a step in the right direction.

One argument against an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance is the impact it will have on businesses. Some say that it would be unfair to treat land owners who want to develop their property for large or small businesses differently then a land owner who wants to build homes. Of course businesses don?t have the same impact on our schools, parks and libraries as homes do, so these differences would be taken into account.

As a Libertarian, I am opposed in principle to such restrictions and fees posed on a land owners? right to build on their property. But something needs to be done to protect taxpayers who are suffering from the consequences of uncontrolled government growth and decades of poor (actually failed) economic management policies. More on this later.

Board members who supported the sales tax hike and refuse to vote in favor of an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance are, in my opinion, not interested in taking appropriate measures to protect Prince William taxpayers and residents from unnecessary negative impacts of growth.

As a member of the Prince William County Committee of 100, I would like to invite anyone interested in learning more about the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance to attend our May 15 program. We have two speakers discussing each side of the issue. For more information go to:

James Simpson welcomes reader feedback and comments. His opinions are his own and may not reflect those of the Committee of 100 or its members. He can be reached at [email protected].