County starts on journey to designate Urban Development Area(s)

On Tuesday, the Board of County Supervisors will approve a request for funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).  The grant will help Prince William update its Comprehensive Plan, to designate at least one Urban Development Area (UDA).  UDA’s are defined as “areas of reasonably compact development that can accommodate 10 to 20 years of projected growth and incorporate the principles of new urbanism and traditional neighborhood design.”

The 2007 General Assembly recognized that sprawling development in high-growth counties creates lots of extra roads, and that VDOT gets stuck with ever-increasing maintenance costs for those roads.  The legislature mandated in 2007 that high-growth counties must identify at least one place for high density development.   (Have you heard?  VDOT is running out of money…) The state’s logic: encourage more people to live in one place, so we build fewer roads and save money.

If Prince William receives the grant, our eight elected supervisors will have to determine what “center(s)” should be designated as Urban Development Area(s) by no later than 2012.  The Planning Department has suggested 5 specific locations.

For the last two years, the Board of County Supervisors has ducked, weaved, bobbed, and skedaddled away from its fundamental responsibility to steer growth in Prince William.  The supervisors have invited even more dumb growth, by allowing Comprehensive Plan Amendments for places outside of the county’s Development Area (such as Avendale, in the Rural Area).

New roads in new subdivisions create higher long-term maintenance costs for VDOT.  The state considered transferring those costs to the counties, so any county approving sprawl would have to absorb the extra road maintenance costs.  The smart growth mandate, added in 2007 as Section 15.2-2223.1 in the Code of Virginia, was approved instead.  The definition of “high density” is only 4 dwelling units/acre, so traditional neighborhoods with quarter-acre lots will qualify as a UDA.

The county’s planning staff has suggested three places in the Potomac Communities zone (North Woodbridge, Potomac Town Center, and Triangle), plus Innovation and Virginia Gateway in Gainesville, as potential UDA locations.

The last site is a classic example of where new subdivision sprawl has triggered a need for a massive increase in highway infrastructure. Instead of concentrating new development along Route 1, the Board of County Supervisors rezoned hundreds of acres in Gainesville/Brentsville.  After developers built low-density subdivisions, highway congestion increased.

Someone has to pay the costs for the never-ending upgrades to I-66 and Route 29.  (Have you heard?  VDOT is running out of money…) Tax increases (or cuts in other state services) are on the horizon.  The General Assembly’s requirement to define UDA’s is the state’s attempt to break this cycle.

At a 2008 planning conference, Sharon Pandak, former County Attorney for Prince William, summarized the benefits of UDAs.  They “can promote the revitalization of urban areas, reduce sprawl, conserve public infrastructure, and facilitate avoidance of development in environmentally sensitive areas. In addition, a locality may have access to additional state transportation funding if the State begins to focus funding into UDAs over non-UDAs.”

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