By. Neil Williamson, President
2019 Summer Economics Series: This summer The Free Enterprise Forum will examine a number of economic theories that impact business development, housing affordability, transportation, and quality of life in Central Virginia. In all cases these issues relate to local government policy not any one particular project.
In my imagination, when the very first committee was ever formed to examine the impacts of new development, the issue of concurrency of infrastructure (expanding roads, schools, etc., as needed) was likely on the agenda. And ever since that very first citizen engagement meeting, according to some measures, government has underfunded infrastructure.
Beyond a simple lack of enough funds to complete every desired project, part of the problem is structural, many government agencies are statutorily prevented from building until there is a demonstrated, quantified, existing need. Imagine if Biscuit Run Elementary School had been built in the center of what is now a State Park.
Coupled with a political calculation that values lower tax rates over increased capital spending, municipal infrastructure tends to always be playing catch up.
The politics of new development are interesting. Recently, we have seen a number of neighborhoods now calling for a moratorium on residential rezonings. Allison Wrabel of The Daily Progress reports:
Dunlora residents are calling for a moratorium on rezonings and new development along Rio Road in Albemarle County.
More than 450 residents of the development signed petitions opposing development of the Rio Road-U.S. 29 corridor, and more specifically, against two projects — Parkway Place and 999 Rio Road — and sent them to the county Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.
“We in the neighborhood two of the Rio District request that no further development be considered until the infrastructure surrounding the area is evaluated and improvements in road safety and traffic flow are implemented,” the letter associated with the petition states.
Later in the letter the Rio area residents indicate they wish to have the same level of protections that the Village of Rivanna was able to have written into their master plan, just prior to the Great Recession.
Addressing traffic issues on US 250 is the highest priority for the Village of Rivanna. Several regional projects identified in the next few pages are necessary to address future growth in a larger area, but also affect the Village of Rivanna. It is essential that all of the US 250 improvements be constructed before new development occurs in the Village
Thanks to Cvillepedia I was able to dig deep into the Charlottesville Tomorrow archives where I found the article from the September 2008 Planning Commission meeting where this infrastructure first concept originated:
[Planning Commissioner Marcia] Joseph said rezoning is when transportation decisions should be made. “If we know that existing conditions are not what we need to do the development, then certainly we need to put that verbiage within the master plan, but I can’t see us just deciding to stop right now with planning into the future because we don’t have the infrastructure.”
[ACPC chair Eric] Strucko called for language that specifically lays out what upgrades need to happen with Route 250 before development occurs.
[Planning Commissioner] Jon Cannon (Rio) said he heard one important question while listening to the discussion. Should a rezoning go forward if the planned infrastructure is not in place?
“Typically in a rezoning we take into account the impact of the rezoning on the highway or on the school system and we’re able to extract a proffer that represents the incremental impact of that development but that does not ensure that an adequate transportation link is going to be available…. Tom [Loach] is saying that there ought to be a mechanism to ensure as a condition of a rezoning under a plan like this that the 250 improvements have been made.”
It is oft repeated the Comprehensive Plan language serves as a guide for future development. Despite some citizen comments to the contrary, it does NOT have the force of law.
In this case, it can’t.
Virginia law is fairly settled that such a moratorium would be illegal and each rezoning application must be heard and must stand or fall on its own merits.
The unintended consequence of comprehensive plan language that mandates infrastructure be in place prior to a rezoning, greatly reduces the chance that a landowner will apply. If we accept that a willing land owner wishes to legally develop their land this caveat is actually pushing the use of so called “stale zoning” with significantly less density, and, generally, higher prices.
Back in 2015 when the City of San Francisco was considering a housing moratorium in the Mission district, Councilman Scott Wiener wrote an op-ed regarding the proposal:
While the moratorium has provided a significant rallying point for some people by tapping into our shared frustration with the insane cost of housing, the moratorium isn’t the answer to our housing crisis, and it won’t do what its proponents claim it will do. Rather, the moratorium gives people a false sense of hope. The moratorium won’t stop a single eviction. It won’t slow the pace of displacement. It won’t make housing cheaper. And, it won’t generate a dime to accelerate funding and construction of affordable housing.
Indeed, a moratorium is likely to have precisely the opposite effect by increasing the housing pressure cooker that’s triggering displacement and reducing the resources available to build affordable housing.
Further a rezoning moratorium, even if temporary, questions the validity of the development areas philosophy as well as the effectiveness of thirty years of planning for growth in the growth areas.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.
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