Friday, February 24, 2006

The Emperor Has No Clothes?

The good news, says Sean Connaughton, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, is that the General Assembly is paying closer attention to growth-management issues than at any time in recent memory.

The bad news, he adds in an op-ed piece published in the Gainesville Times, is that the raft of legislation emanating from the legislature this year doesn't add anything to what Northern Virginia localities are doing already.
All these bills sound exciting and most are on their way to being enacted. However, there is a big problem: They are of no value to Prince William County and the other jurisdictions of Northern Virginia. The local governments of this region, as well as in many other parts of the Virginia, already do everything these bills authorize or require. The only bill that would actually have had an impact was HB 1610. This bill would have specifically authorized local governments to deny or modify rezoning requests that would overwhelm the local transportation infrastructure. That bill was unceremoniously killed in subcommittee without even the benefit of a hearing or recorded vote.

Once again, Richmond has not responded to critical challenges facing much of Virginia. The current crop of legislation, despite the merits of HB 1610, is largely unhelpful.

In previous posts, I've lauded the General Assembly is for addressing land-use issues, as watered down as their measures may be. My question now, after reading Connaughton's column, is this: Do these bills represent just a first step in seriously addressing Virginia's dysfunctional land use patterns, or are they sops to create the illusion of doing something substantive?


At 9:29 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

A bit of both? I suspect that most members of the General Assembly realize that the existing legal system governing development and its relationship to public infrastructure is broken and that a growing number of voters, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, want major changes. I also believe that the legislators understand that there are good arguments for change that are consistent with their own party's policies and philosophies. Thus, both Republicans and Democrats in the GA could vote for major changes in the law and point to their votes as being the mainstream of their party creed.

I further suspect, however, that change is complicated by several factors. One is fear of their major campaign contributors -- the real estate industry. Two is the cover for no change being provided by the mainstream press, who believe that the cure for every problem is more spending and more taxes. What would be the situation if the editorial writers were regularly taking the position that increasing spending and taxes on transportation without other fundamental changes is nonsensical? (The Post this morning criticizes those members of the GA who said that WMATA's management problems should be addressed before Virginia provides a permanent taxpayer subsidy source to WMATA. The Post's solution: tax first, then maybe look solving problems.)

A third factor is the problems are complicated and the real solutions may not be obvious and acceptable among average voters. Solving complicated problems takes time, especially when they've been ignored for years.

I do suspect, however, that many legislators of both parties are simply hoping that manna falls from the sky and this problem goes away before the 2007 elections. Maybe voter anger over development issues will disappear!!! But deep down inside, incumbents from high growth areas must realize that they can easily be hammered in 2007, either in primaries or in the general election, by candidates who raise one simple issue: the incumbent failed to deliver on growth-control legislation. "You failed; give someone else a chance." An impossible challenge to defend against!

Our representatives are living in interesting times!

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Well, the conservationists can raise the money to become major campaign contriutors, too. And they have in some cases. Campaign contributions seem to be the one place in government that recognizes you can only get what you pay for.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

Ray Hyde: According to, it's not close. For 2005, environmental groups gave candidates $144,887, while the real estate industry contributed $10,154,573. The latter's contributions were second only to those from various political parties and organizations.

I'm sure that there were other contributions that were environmental or real estate-related that might not be listed because the donor gave as an individual.

There's nothing wrong in making campaign contributions; I do it myself. The full and timely disclosure is important in my view.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I agree. My message to conservationists is that they have to compete on the same playing field. Conservation is not cheap and they need a more business like and less pie in the sky approach.

Maybe they are just setting their sights too high. If conservation is akin to tithing, then ten percent is a good goal.

If you insist on having everything or close to it, like the 95/5 rule or the 85/15 rule, then you need to understand that costs in that range are no longer linear, they are exponential.

I refuse to give contributions. The amount I can give is so small that it is like pushing jello with a toothpick.

I don't worry so much about the big campaign contributions either. My observation is that candidates will say anything to get the money, but when push comes to shove, when they have to sit down and listen to both sides and make a vote, then their promises amount to little. Some politicians do have a mind and a conscience.

For the ones that don't, well the system is so big and muddled, that they will have to trade favors to get what they want. With so many favors being traded the end result turns out to be a big delphi convention, and the answer comes out the same anyway.

Believe it or not, there are developers that are also conservationists. But if you go look up and find some of the developments that were done as environmentally friendly as possible, don't plan on buying there. Like I said, conservation is expensive.

Did you catch the story in last Sunday's paper about the big development on or near the Bay in Cambridge. I can't imagine a worse idea. Low ground, stuck amidst a bunch of wildlife preserves, adjacent to a tributary to the Bay, etc.

But the developers have been working with officials for four years, and the approvals are mostly done. Then after all that work comes CBF trying to stop it.

The comment from the spokesman for the developer was "Farming is not an option here." and I have no doubt he is correct.

The comment from the CBF spokesman was, "With 100,000 people moving into the watershed every year, we have to do something." and I have no doubt they are correct also.

Maybe you could enlist CBF to help you out. After all Fairfax is in the watershed, too.

I'm pretty much convinced we all want the same things: nice homes and good jobs doing important work in a clean, pleasant, and safe environment.

But each of us wants to push the cost off on someone else. Like the politicians we all make our little deals and accomodations: I drive a hybrid and heat my house profligrately. It makes no sense and I know it, but there are limited resources. So we all push and shove a little this way and that; at the end it is business as usual.

I'm convinced we will eventually have fundamental change, but it is likely to be an accident unlike anything we planned, and we may not like the results.

At 4:24 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

re: land-use reform

Connaughton has it right. There's very little that is new in land-use legislation.

I'd challenge anyone to show a specific bill that they believe will change anything in a major way for the localities that are on the front-lines of growth and congestion.

re: money in the GA

The distinction is corporate donations verses individual.

Real Estate folks (and others) don't donate their own money - they "invest" some of their profits - to assure that their businesses can continue to operate without being affected by legislation that they deem harmful to their financial interests.

What is most gauling to me is that these "costs" are incorporated into the price of their services (i.e. customers pay) AND they get to write off much of it as business expenses (taxpayers pay).

This is WAY different than individuals donating money out of their household budgets.

Go look at VPAP and the State Board of Elections websites and look at the corporate money that pays for full-time professional lobby personnel - that are on duty 24/7 in Richmond during the GA.

It might be a constitutional "right" for corporate entities to put money into the political process but what law forces legislators to receive the money or listen to paid lobby folks more-so than citizens?

Corporations control the process - even to the point of preventing changes to what many citizens believe are inherently corrupt practices.

If citizens were ever allowed to actually vote out the corporate involvement, they'd be gone in a heatbeat but that vote will never come because the very same corporate folks will make sure that citizens never get to vote.

Corporate money, is also used to ensure that incumbents who have been 'reliable" to corporate interests will ALWAYS have MUCH more money at elections than challengers who must depend on individual donations.

I would agree, that the law should not restrict donations - it merely should prevent receipt of donations by any elected official no matter how many times that money is "laundered" through PACS and 501c(4) front-organizations.

Disclosure is not good enough because if you have ever tried to "follow the money", you realize very quickly that money is almost never a single transaction between single corporate and a single legislator but rather a series of transactions to PACs and 501c(4) groups so as to render virtually impossible the ability to discern who gave money to whom.

Citizens are essentially presented with a proposition that in order to participate that they have to engage in the same corrupt practices with their only individual money.

Did I mention that I think the whole concept is not good? :-)

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

Ray Hyde: I'm sure that a number of developers are quite conservation minded. I've done work for one company that has a wall in its office covered with plaques and certificates for its land and water conservation efforts. But there's also a company that "persuaded" Fairfax County officials to ignore its stream preservation ordinance so it could build more houses on a parcel of property. While the real fault lies with the county officials (remember Harry Truman's "The Buck Stops Here"), a business needs to take responsibility for what it does. We all need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror each morning!

Larry: I think that all the money in the world won't make a difference in 2007. The "over-development" issue has reached a tipping point in many parts of the state. If one's constituents want development restrictions more than any other public policy and a senator or delegate comes home from Richmond without them, what is the defense against a reasonably good opponent who says "I can do better"?

It wasn't that long ago when tobacco was king in the general assembly. The less-than-a-nickel tax on cigarettes was virtually constitutional. The tax rate is up and bills to ban smoking in restaurants gets serious consideration. Within the foreseeable future, Virginia will get much stronger land use control legislation, which may even be unreasonably strict. That's why I've often argued that the building community ought to abandon its "over-my-dead-body" stance and work towards reasonable legislation now, instead of waiting for an openly hostile GA in 2008.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I saw a house built in my neighborhood in Alexandria that i simply couldn't believe. The stream bed is 15 feet outside the back door. I don't know how he ever got a building permit, but the home is much larger and more imposing than mine, which took years to get permitted.

I think transparency and predictability is a big part of the problem.

At 8:34 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

TMT: I think you are right. This over my dead body stance is going too far, and it goes for the conservationists as well as the builders. EMR calls it the winner take all attitude.

I'v only seen some of their stuff, but Fairfax has a Fair Growth organization that seems like they halfway have their act together.

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Deborah Reyher said...

Someone told me there was an interesting discussion going here, and there is.

The comment above about developers "persuading" officials to strip environmental buffers from streams was the Wedderburn case, which is what injected me into these issues at high speed a little over a year ago. And the complete ineffectiveness of citizens seeking to engage with a County machine well-oiled over the years by developers' loving attentions was daunting. See

When it became clear that the Wedderburn stream and many, many 100+ year old trees on that property were doomed, and that this was but ONE of a long list of similar development projects approved over intense citizen protest and without regional planning, we launched, which now links together over 20 different organizations all concerned about the growth "auto-pilot" we are on, and land-use policies run amok.

I've been down to Richmond twice now in connection with our growing citizen activism, and what goes on there is pretty daunting also. I testified in a Senate subcommittee on behalf of Senator Ticer's bill to require certain requirements for preservation of native tree cover in development projects -- killed by Senator Cucchinelli on a 8-6 vote to "pass by indefinitely" (on a tie vote it is my understanding the motion would have failed), after Mike Toalson testified against it on behalf of the housing industry.

On the next trip I watched the defeat of a bill to require disclosure of campaign contributions (and their cumulative amounts) at the land planning stage -- and not just a during rezonings (where the only disclosure is whether the amount exceeds $100), again after Mike Toalson testified against the bill.
Read this article for some intesesting insights:

And then HB1610 (providing localities authority to refuse re-zonings if local transporation capacity is inadequate) was killed on a 9-2 vote in subcommittee. And to date who voted which way on that has not even been publicly reported, as Republicans apparently passed new rules this year allowing such votes not to be reported -- apparently you have to BE THERE to find out how your elected official voted. See:

So, there is a lot wrong, and it has been wrong for a very long time, and only citizens raising our voices collectively and on a sustained basis is ever going to make a difference.

But this is the time -- Fairfax County is at a critical tipping point where the consequences of spot-planning for one dense residential project after another (MetroWest, Dunn Loring, Tysons, etc) are going to foreclose a lot of options for addressing infrastructure needs (parks, schools, transit, roads, sewers, watershed protection).

Did you know, for example, that while Fairfax Supervisors Kauffman and Smyth have asked County staff to report on what "transit-oriented development" means in Fairfax County, because currently it "can mean virtually anything you want it to mean" (see
_n.html), no work has been done on this at all for the last two months. Yet the MetroWest development, which is touted as "transit oriented development" but lacks a number of critical qualifying features (see
=73&cat=110), is still rushing forward, with a Planning Commission vote due on the Ides of March (I kid you not).

The real question is whether the populace is waking up to the true facts fast enough, and whether waiting until the next election cycle may even be too late.

Do we "halfway have our act together"? Well, not if you mean following a script, or having a command structure, or even any money. But if you mean hundreds of citizen leaders communicating and collaborating to identify issues or cross-county concern, mobilizing to support other communities with common interests, engaging with the media to educate the public at large, endlessly researching issues, building development models, blogging, and sharing mini-snickers bars past midnight at County hearings, well yes, we have a pretty good act pulled together already! Thanks for the compliment -- and come join us.

At 4:24 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

deborah: Re- Transit oriented development. I've been raising the issue here that we have no metrics. We don't know what the traffic is a Metro West now, and we won't when it is done. If we do, we won't know if the changes were caused by Metro West or new developments in Culpeper.

You are right: no one knows what transit oriented development is.

Re- 100 year old trees. If they were really that old, it was probably time to harvest them, and might have been better to do so. If the property generates money then the owners might realize what it is worth.

I hope someone used the trees and they didn't just get bulldozed. But saving the property just for the historic trees is probably not real. We need a better argument.

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Deborah Reyher said...

Ray --

Defining TOD for Fairfax (which might be subtly different than defining it in other places, although I would assume certain core principles to be constant) is a critical task. We should not be approving and building projects in the name of TOD without this -- that is simply good governance.

The fact that Fairfax County is pressing forward so unrelentingly without a clear set of principles and standards for TOD raises a lot of serious questions, and frankly makes citizens really mad.

Just FYI re: the Wedderburn property, no one was trying to stop development there, we just objected to the outrageous methods that the County allowed the developers to use to strip an RPA from the headwater stream; the County's refusal to set any policy for buffers along the W&OD Trail (esp. after all the Dominion tree clearing the prior summer); and the County's wink-and-nod in allowing the developers to vacate tree-save commitments made during prior developments and then use the same areas to justify yet HIGHER density.

With all three of these things going on, the site ended up so densely packed with houses that not a single tree in the interior of the entire 12 acre parcel will be saved -- not one.

There are some amazing heritage and specimen trees at Wedderburn --healthy and luxurious. It would have been a glorious thing to have saved just a few patches of green containing a few of those trees for the new community and for those of us who will be their neighbors.

At 11:58 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Deborah, I'm with you. I think some of those high density projects are nuts, TOD or not. But the density and growth craze you are experiencing is actively being promoted by well funded citizen groups and so called environmental organizations that promote more densit in your area in order to help forestall it in theirs.

These groups are largly responsible for promoting the rule changes that make more density psooible in Fairfax. The environmentalists are writing the rules that make the developers rich, and they are killing their own credibility in the proccess.

But the fact is that the developers pretty much have to uproot everything in order to meet all the technical site requirements imposed. In turn, the cost of those means that the developers have to build on every square inch in order to turn a profit. The laws we have are what make builders, and make them do the awful things we see.

Even had they been able to work around the trees, they would have so altered the environment that they might not survive anyway. If they are a hundred years old, they might live another hundred and they might not, but that is well into maturity for most trees.

My home is about a hundred years old and for the last twenty years we have had to periodically remove majestic trees that had become a danger. The last one was close to four feet in diameter and over 120 feet tall. It rattled the dishes when I dropped that one, but there was no choice.

Its sister had aleady dropped a major branch on the house, damaging the roof, and you could see daylight right through the tree through a rotten spot 60 feet up. Otherwise the tree appeared healthy. Only after it came down coud you tell that it was mostly and empty shell. Even so, it was so big it took me weeks of time spread out over a year to get it all out of the yard. It will keep us wrm for years.

Dropping it meant that other trees that had been over topped could now survive, and I have more lush foliage than ever now. Fairfax pays its arborist a princely sum, and trees above a certain caliper need permits to be cut.

I'm sorry they are gone, particularly if they were near a strem bed, but I hope they went to a good use. All we can hope for is that ther is enough space left over so that trees can grow there again. Remember when you look at leafy neighborhoods in Falls Church that they were once pretty naked, too.

Realistically, our urban forest would be a lot better off if we removed 10 to 20% of the trees every 20 years. The reamining trees would grow better, and we could get rid of the trash trees, diseased and crippled trees, na d we could manage our power outages better.

As environmentalists, we need to be clear eyed about our tree hugging, and also place the blame in all the places it belongs, not just on the developers.

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Deborah Reyher said...

Ray: I agree the rules for this awful game largely dictate the outcome. That's why I have been twice to Richmond now to lobby for even some watered-down verson of an adequate public facilities bill, as well as for tree conservation measures.

And yes I agree with you that proper urban forest management is critical as we decide what to save and where. It makes no sense to have trees that have been saved at great expense die within a few years (at great expense to new homeowners) because of poor planning or preservation methods.

And so that you know, in my day job I do environmental enforcement for the US, so I'm as green as they come. But that doesn't mean I automatically accept the agenda of all environmental groups either. But that is another topic.


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