Should we plan land use first, or transportation – or do them together? A lesson from Albemarle County that applies to Avendale

The Free Enterprise Forum representing the business community in Albemarle County recently declared “Land use should inform transportation decisions, but the transportation decisions should be made in a larger regional context.”

The business community in Albemarle is pushing that perspective as part of its fight against the Places29 Master Plan component of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.  Business community opponents are concerned about the proposed cost of the plan, including six new grade-separated interchanges on Route 29 north of Charlottesville.

Interesting philosophy – recognize first the locations where we can accommodate the traffic generated by new growth, plan for new development in those locations, and base land use revisions on just those projects with a reasonable expectation of being built over the next 20 years.

(You could say twist the Albemarle business community’s logic and say “Build all the transportation projects desired by regional partners first, and then consider the needs of individual jurisdictions later.”  In that scenario, Northern Virginia would build cross-boundary projects that affect multiple jurisdictions, such as the Western Transportation Corridor, before upgrading intersections on the Prince William Parkway.  When we start electing people to regional offices, rather than county/city offices… then elected regional officials can impose new regional taxes to pay for regional projects – and regional priorities will include a feedback loop, so the citizens who pay taxes can elect regional officials with the “right” priorities.)

The fiscal sanity of Albemarle’s businesses makes a striking contrast with the approach of Prince William County’s politicians and land developers…

The Albemarle business community recognizes that the funding for upgrading Route 29 may come from local commercial property owners, through creation of a new Community Development Authority or Service District.

An extra “super tax” on landowners next to Route 29 in Albemarle County would be comparable to how Fairfax/Loudoun counties financed the new Route 28 interchanges near Dulles Airport.

However, developers on Route 28 near Dulles needed road improvements in order to build new corporate offices on undeveloped land.  Most of the land adjacent to the Places29 improvements near Charlottesville is already developed.  Business opposition reflects concerns that existing businesses (and perhaps some residents) would get an extra tax, without any direct economic benefit from road improvements.

New taxes to fund new roads might be acceptable for developers with “greenfield” projects – but if you want landowners to cough up extra taxes on already-developed properties to pay for new transportation projects, then expect a request for increased development potential (higher density) for the parcels paying the extra taxes.

Rezoning for higher density makes sense where a county wants mixed use “centers” with transit-oriented development to replace existing low-value development.   Within the planned “Potomac Communities” along Route 1, there are multiple opportunities.

Rezoning for higher density where the county does not plan for mixed use “centers” with transit-oriented development, such as Avendale… well, supervisors who support such rezonings are just giving it away.  Avendale developers might proffer expanding a few lanes right at Vint Hill/Route 28 – but who’s going to expand the rest of our road network, once Avendale residents drive onto 234 or Route 28 north of Manassas?  Busting the Rural Crescent and extending sprawl further will make a few private developers very rich, at the expense of the county’s taxpayers and everyone who drives on ever-more-congested roads.

The Free Enterprise Forum in Albemarle County had a good suggestion: prioritize “The Big Five” transportation improvements that were likely to be constructed over the next 20 years, then revise the land use plan based on that new infrastructure and direct county road revenue towards those five projects.  There are five projects needed to serve existing and approved developments, but other expensive projects discussed in Places29 were considered speculative, lower-priority, nice-to-have proposals.

NOTE: the Albemarle Planning Commission adopted Places29, in a 4-2 vote, on October 27.

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