Planning Commission approves elimination of proffers (no, this is not April Fool…)

On April 15, low-tax advocates held a “tea party” at McCoart.  That evening, the Planning Commission decided the county should drop proffer requirements for Urban Mixed Use and Village Mixed Use planning districts.

If the Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) endorsed that approach, taxpayers rather than developers would absorb the costs for public services stimulated by new residents.  Developers would contribute nothing for new schools, roads, police/fire stations, libraries, and parks.  A supervisor who votes for the Land Use Chapter proposed by the Planning Commission would be voting to raise taxes on current residents.

Looks like political suicide, to raise taxes and give developers a free ride ( “if a developer doesn’t pick up that cost, then the taxpayer does“) … so how could this strategy make sense?

The  current Policy Guide for Monetary Contributions (last updated in 2006) requires developers to contribute $37,719 for every residence approved in a rezoning.  A new townhome now involves a $31,927 proffer; the proffer per multifamily unit is $19,526 (the presumption being fewer people live in the smaller units, so the burden for new services is lower).

Back in October, 2007, the BOCS rejected a proposal to raise the proffers to $51,113 per single family house.   At that time, the chair of the BOCS was advocating a proffer increase and also imposition of impact fees, so by-right projects (development that did not require a rezoning) would also make a one-time contribution to offset the cost of public services.

So why would the Planning Commission drop the proffer requirement for urban mixed use designation areas and suburban mixed use designation areas?  It’s designed as a financial carrot, to steer developers to build urban/suburban mixed use developments. 

Big bucks are involved.  In the Wheeler Grove development near the interchange of Route 234 and I-66, the developer would get a $17 million subsidy if the project met the criteria for UMU.  (Those criteria remain unclear, but would require the BOCS to approve a county-initiated master zoning plan with the affected property owners.)

However, dropping proffers without using other tools to shape growth is a bad bargain.  We’d be giving away too much, too soon, in our negotiations with developers.  Besides, the criteria for urban/suburban mixed use development are too loose.  They don’t ensure we will get smart, transit-oriented development.   We’d give away big bucks, and could get little in return.

If the county was serious about creating new town centers and urban villages in mixed use development areas, it would use tools that cost no money (i.e., zoning) to shape growth as well as no-proffer subsidies to developers.  We’d use “sticks” as well as “carrots” to shape developer behavior, just as parents do to shape behavior of their children.

What “sticks” could we use that are not a burden on taxpayers?  If we don’t want more suburban sprawl… stop approving rezonings to permit additional houses, outside of mixed use designation areas.  If the county was really serious about creating mixed use development, the BOCS would initiate a “master zoning plan” at the advertised University Town Center and invite bids for a developer partner, so we stimulated new growth where we say we want it.

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