Why Prince William doesn’t build new roads, before creating more congestion with new development

The demographers estimate that 150,000 more residents will be living in Prince William in 20 years. The Board of County Supervisors has the primary responsibility of shaping patterns of development in Prince William, documenting in the Comprehensive Plan how the county will accommodate projected growth by 2030.

The supervisors will consider three versions of a Land Use chapter update on Tuesday night.  All three versions are fatally flawed, along with the proposed Transportation Chapter.

One version of the Land Use Chapter, drafted by a Land Use Advisory Committee appointed by the county supervisors, declared open warfare on smart growth concepts while slathering the text with smart growth terminology.  That developer-dominated advisory committee supported scattering new development in over 20 high-density “centers” across the county (coincidentally matching some places where developers had acquired vacant land through speculation).

The Planning Commission version is better, but still offers a wide-open invitation for developers to build “centers” in areas already zoned for mixed use development.  So much land is in those zoning categories, it’s impossible to identify which places in Prince William will change over time – and new development could be so excessive, it might convert existing shopping districts into ghost towns.  If no one will know where new centers will be developed until the developers choose to announce their plans… then expect traffic to get worse near new development, long before any road upgrades/transit projects could be completed.

The Planning Department has offered the best of the three versions of a Land Use chapter.  Still, the Planning Department draft proposes the supervisors authorize more potential development than would be needed, and provide great flexibility so developers control where growth should occur.

It is reasonable for developers to determine when to build, and what to build – but Prince William officials have been empowered since the 1950’s to use planning/zoning to shape where growth will occur.  In the late 1960’s, that authority enable officials to steer growth in the Dale City area to match planned upgrades in sewer and school capacity.

The developer-driven draft seems dead-on-arrival; it’s not expected to be considered seriously on Tuesday night.   However, the other two drafts are still “dumb growth” plans wrapped up in “smart growth” words.

Under any one of the three draft Land Use chapters, new growth will occur in places that the developers (and their bankers) will determine should be profitable.  County officials will have to guess where new centers will be constructed.  While the Planning Department draft is the best of the three, it still gets a grade of F.

Why would supervisors approve such lousy Comprehensive Plan updates, after two years of planning/discussion?  Are officials in Prince William a bunch of unsophisticated rubes who don’t recognize obvious disconnects in their planning documents?

Hardly.  There are some savvy politicians and developers here in Prince William, plus staff willing to fill the void and cut their own deals with developers.  Approving vague long-range Comprehensive Plan chapters just pushes the real decision process away from public hearings and into the back room, where staff and supervisors can negotiate in private with developers.   After approving uncoordinated and unrealistic public documents for land use and transportation planning, developers/supervisors/staff will be able to define which transportation projects should get funded in private conversations.

Prince William won’t build $3-4 billion of new transportation capacity by 2030, as proposed in the Transportation Chapter, but we might build some new projects.  Developers and their bankers will need to know plans for new transit/road improvements, so new centers take advantage of upgraded transportation capacity such as a bus rapid transit or Virginia Railway Express station.

(Linking development to transportation is not just an academic concept.  Bankers know the profitability of any new “center” will be affected by new traffic congestion.   Developers and government officials will decide on new projects, working together.  Otherwise, the county and developers would both need to hire fortunetellers as well as engineers, so a new center did not create massive new traffic congestion that might make the development unattractive to new tenants.)

Someday, someday… county supervisors will demand proposals for Comprehensive Plan updates that match the growth projections of county demographers.
Someday, someday… county supervisors will define where new growth should occur, integrate land use and transportation plans, and commit to upgrading the transit/road capacity to specific places to accommodate the planned increase in population.
Someday, someday… county supervisors will require fiscal impact statements to be presented along with the proposed updates to the Comprehensive Plan, so the costs of growth are revealed.



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