October 8 Public Hearings on Land Use/Transportation/Housing

In this Comprehensive Plan update cycle, the Planning Commission determined that revised chapters on transportation and land use should be drafted separately by different committees. That guaranteed the eight planning commissioners would have to integrate the two chapters. 

Hey, someone has to determine where future growth should be concentrated, so we could reduce future traffic congestion from single occupancy vehicles (SOV’s), right? 

“More of the same” for PW County development just guarantees perpetual gridlock and grumpy citizens, even assuming that voters/politicians would approve much higher taxes and we could build new roads and transit capabilities.

The Planning Commission’s heavy lifting in public starts with hearings on Wednesday, October 8 (7:00pm at McCoart Adminstrative Center).

Public hearings occur near the end of the “real” decisionmaking process in PW County.  Citizen committees spent over a year on drafting chapters (a housing chapter got tossed into the mix later).   The Planning Commission then spent three months reviewing/modifying those drafts, prior to October 8.

The transportation chapter proposed by the Mobility Committee (on which I served) was an “aim high” proposal.  It suggested over $2.3 billion in highway expansion for specific projects.  Add in the costs of the interchanges required, plus climbing construction costs… assume $3 billion by now (waaay more than predicted funding over the next 22 years).

The Mobility Committee also specified where transit investments should be made, primarily for bus and rail lines.  Add in costs of transit, including pie-in-the-sky proposals made after Mobility Committee finished its draft to include ferries and Metrorail… we’re talking real money to be generated by pie-in-the-sky-high new taxes or massive new debt. 

The Mobility Committee chapter defined transportation corridors, so development could be concentrated to transit-level densities.  We made it possible for the Planning Commission to select new growth locations on corridors where transit could reduce congestion from single occupancy vehicles (SOV’s).

Separately, the Land Use Advisory Committee (LUAC) got the responsibility to propose where the county should increase development potential to accommodate projected population growth, from 388,000 people now to 555,000 people in the year 2030. 

In the end, the two committees created separate chapters on transportation and land use that are wildly inconsistent where it really matters.   There is no way the Planning Commission can approve both documents as currently drafted, and still pretend the county has a realistic plan to reduce traffic congestion and hold the line on higher taxes for new road bonds.  

Yes, the land use chapter in particular is full of sweet words about intending to implement smart growth principles.  However, like saccharine, the sweetness is artificial.  If you’ve heard teenagers make promises about how they will take out the garbage, or adults make New Year’s resolutions about exercising and losing weight, you know that sweet words are not enough.

The fundamental problem is that the land use chapter scatters development across 25 widely-separated “centers” totaling 12,500 acres.  That sprawls, rather than focuses, where growth should occur. 

The chapter also ignores the already-zoned-for-growth areas than can absorb most of the projected 40% increase in the county’s population.  The entire Potomac Communities redevelopment effort is treated as if it will fail miserably, and we plan for no new population growth in our existing towns of Haymarket, Occoquan, Quantico, or Dumfries.  

But hey, what’s wrong with encouraging creative development at 25 new locations?

Here’s a worst-case scenario.  If PW County built each “center of community/center of commerce” to the density of, say, the 17-block Town Center in Virginia Beach, we could squeeze 12 million people into about 10,000 city blocks of urban development. 

If we built out those 25 “centers” at the density of the city of Alexandria (including residential neighborhoods and high-density Old Town), we could absorb 100-150,000 more people than the county predicts will arrive by 2030. 

We need a competitive market and realistic prices for developable land.  However, approval of way-more-potential-development-than-needed by the Planning Commission would abdicate the responsibility to determine which new locations should be rezoned later to match the new Comp Plan.

Clearly the market is not there for all the potential development proposed in the land use chapter.  Obviously developers will spread out their new projects, build at lower density levels.  The land use chapter invites them to scatter new growth across 25 spots on the map. 

We’ll probably get 25 small projects, each called a “town center.”  Developers will claim that a commitment to build a grocery store, some other retail, and a few office buildings should be sufficient for rezoning the rest of their parcels within a center circle for residential housing.  (One clue: staff already recommends that we revise the draft to encourage single family housing in Centers of Commerce.)

PRTC bus stops will be labeled “transit nodes.”  However, a bus will have to stop a zillion times to get a full load – or we’ll have to spend a zillion dollars to run Omni-Ride buses from 25 new locations. 

A VRE train station that has only 3-5 trips/day into DC will be labeled a “mass transit node.”   Think all new residents will stay in jobs along the rail line, minimizing peak hour commuter congestion?  (Perhaps a VRE station would be “mass” transit, if all the commuters were overweight…)     

Bottom Line: the proposed Comprehensive Plan updates fail to shape where growth will occur.  That failure makes it impossible to design a transit network to service areas of concentrated development.  

If the Planning Commission abdicates responsibility for selecting the areas where we want increased density, slaps 25 circles on a map, and waits for creative developers to determine where to build… let’s abandon the sweet talk about smart growth.  We’ll never reduce traffic congestion through transit.

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