Before we define solutions, let’s define the problem

The demographers predict in the March 15 Demographic Factsheet that 165,000 new residents will come to Prince William over the next 20 years.   To absorb the new residents, Prince William will need about 55,000 new residential units by 2030.

The March 12, 2008 Build-Out Analysis says “In summary, there is capacity for 46,336 additional dwelling units to be built.”  Without any changes in the current Comprehensive Plan, we could absorb about 135,000 new residents in those already-planned residential units.

To house the last 30,000 arrivals, we need to build 20% more houses than would be permitted in the current Comp Plan.  Right now, however, we have vast amounts of property ready for developers that could accommodate 15 years of population growth.  (The extra 30,000 more people predicted by 2030 that will need housing?  They ain’t on the doorstep now.)

So why are our planners trying to up-plan and up-zone for even more people?  What problem are they fixing?

The 2030 Comprehensive Plan is supposed to define where new development should occur.  If we like the pattern of growth permitted by the current planning and zoning, then we don’t need to do anything.

However, an optimist would suggest we can do better than encourage more suburban sprawl.  “More of the same” is not the right approach for the next 20 years.  Our planners should apply lessons learned over the last 50 years, and revise the Comp Plan.

We are inviting scattered growth in the current Comp Plan.  The draft 2030 Transportation Chapter approved by the Planning Commission hypothesized that we’d build houses in lots of places, so we’d also build new roads and widen existing roads to meet the needs of all those subdivisions.  That chapter proposes to construct 700 new “lanemiles” by 2030.

The problem is… we can’t afford to build 700 new lanemiles.  VDOT will be unable to even maintain the current road network, especially as high-mileage cars and high-priced gasoline result in slow-growth gas tax revenues, or even a reduction in current revenues.

If we can’t afford the roads, then there’s an obvious solution: shift to transit, and modify the draft Transportation Chapter accordingly.

The problem is… we can’t afford to build an effective transit network if we keep scattering growth.

Sure, PRTC could run more buses through subdivisions, picking up a few people at a time at “walkable, close-to-your-house” bus stops.  Unless the houses are close to each other, or bus riders willing to walk a long way from home to catch the bus, or taxpayers are generous enough to implement transit with SuperShuttle vans and a zillion drivers, we’ll need 15-20 stops to collect a busload of passengers in large-lot suburbia.  That’s not rapid transit.

If we can’t afford more of the same ol’ same ol’ low-density suburbia, then there’s an obvious solution: steer growth to one or more high-density town centers.  Ideally, locate the town center(s) where there is access to bus service and rail service, and where revitalization is already a priority for the county.

Unfortunately, the current versions of the Land Use and Transportation Chapters fail to do this.  The drafts for 2030 versions are no better.  They scatter rather than direct where growth should occur.

How to solve the “where to put projected growth” problem?  Designate one or two town centers in the Potomac Communities area; don’t increase density anywhere else.  Ideally, transfer development rights to those town centers, further concentrating new development and integrating it with transit planning.

If you think there’s a political requirement to over-plan and over-zone to maintain a 20-year supply of buildable parcels, then add one or two more town centers along the Manassas line of VRE.  That’s all we need to accommodate the demographic projections and match supply with demand.

Proposals to locate “centers” in lots of locations are, at best, a sub-optimal solution to the problem.  If the Planning Commission approves a new Land Use Chapter that permits continued, excessively-fragmented development wihout a tight connection to a planned transit system… strike up “Nearer My God to Thee,” because we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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