Should county government condemn private land to develop a “center”?

You’d think this question would have an obvious answer – but note how Roanoke has operated recently.

The Prince William County Planning Department proposed in its draft Land Use Chapter that Yorkshire should become a “Center of Community.”  There are similar proposals to develop North Woodbridge.

At both sites, land ownership is fragmented.  Assembling enough property to create a mixed use, walkable community, one that was large enough to justify public investment to provide transit services, would not be a simple challenge in either location.

There’s one way to ensure enough acreage is available to attract a private developer: acquire land through government condemnation, then sell it to a private company for development as a “town center.”  The US Supreme Court ruled in the Kelo decision that government seizure of private land, for resale to another private company, is legal.

Think it can’t happen here?  Look south to Roanoke – that city just demonstrated what’s wrong with the condemn-and-resell approach.

As described in The Roanoke Times, the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority is condemning private property to support creating a biotech park (originally called the Carilion Biomedical Institute) in the city.  The city government just bought a private flooring company and 3 acres, based on a “redevelopment plan closely linked to Carilion’s proposal to build a business park and medical school” – but the hospital has no desire for the property.

Roanoke is evicting a successful private company from their site, assembling land for future resale to an unknown bidder.   The City of Roanoke is engaged in speculative development through condemnation, interfering with the free market for land purchases.

Prince William is not Roanoke, or one of the other Virginia jurisdictions highlighted by the Farm Bureau.  It’s one thing to use the government’s constitutional authority to force a sale at pay fair market value, but it’s hard to believe that Prince William County officials would  declare an area “blighted” and seize private property through condemnation – just to help a preferred developer.

So how could anyone acquire enough property to develop a town center at Yorkshire or North Woodbridge?  Simple: private developers can negotiate for purchase of whatever acreage is required for a new town center.

The good news: there’s no need to assemble 500 acres.  Virginia Beach has shown with its successful Town Center that less than 20 city blocks can be developed with 4.3 million square feet of mixed-use finished space and 3,200 public parking spaces, accommodating a living and working population that will reach  24,000.

Prince William officials have the opposite problem from officials in Roanoke, which has drawn a clear line for where redevelopment should occur… and then crossed the line with heavy-handed land acquisition.  Our county officials seem congenitally unable to identify where they want growth to occur.  If we define 20+ brand new centers of density, as proposed by local developers on the Land Use advisory Committee, we’d be replanning over 10,000 acres.  That’s not planning; if the supervisors just slap big circles on a map, no one will know where to expect growth to occur over the next 20 years.

The reasonable path lies in-between the Roanoke and the current Prince William approaches.  Replanning and then rezoning should be based on the projected population and job growth in the county through the year 2030.   The planning process is designed for county officials to steer growth to certain areas where we could provide transportation and other services.

We have already zoned enough parcels to accommodate the growth projected for the next 15 years, and transit-oriented development will require concentrated development.  We need to define only a small number of acres where density should be increased – unless you want to perpetuate sprawl as usual.  In that case, draw lots of wide circles, propose lots of “centers,” and sit back and watch development occur in random patterns.

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