Fast-growing Virginia localities that want more legal tools to combat suburban sprawl are going to have to wait at least another year.

Despite a strong push during the General Assembly session from environmental groups and localities, legislators quickly put off bills to encourage what proponents call “smart growth” by giving localities more say over how, and how quickly, land is developed.

Before the session began in January, 22 cities and counties announced that they were sick and tired of being unable to control growth. They said rapid growth, especially in northern Virginia, creates nasty traffic tie-ups, crowded schools, inadequate public services and higher taxes.

Officials from the localities proposed legislation that would:

  • Force the state to share more tax revenue with cities and counties to pay for local services and school construction.
  • Make it easier for localities to stop developers from building up areas where there aren't enough schools, roads and other public services.
  • Force developers to help localities pay for new schools and other services made necessary by their home-building.

Growth management advocates were further bolstered by a poll conducted by the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Public Policy which showed a majority of Virginians favor tougher restrictions on growth.

Of those surveyed, 59 percent said the loss of open space is not an inevitable result of economic forces, but rather a problem the state should attempt to prevent. Also, seven out of 10 supported controlling growth instead of building more roads as a way of improving growth-related transportation problems. A slim majority also said they would favor a tax increase to raise money to preserve farms, parks and woodlands.

Nonetheless, the House of Delegates and Senate committees recommended that the bills be studied further, effectively killing them for the year.

Rick Womble, a Spotsylvania County supervisor and a leader of Virginia’s smart growth movement, said the assembly’s ignorance of local government problems doomed the legislation. The power of the construction and real estate industries also played a part, Womble said.

Developers, including the home construction industry, donated $167,500 to legislators during the second half of 1998.

“The builders say, ‘You should do it this way and everything will be fine. And by the way, thank you very much, here's your campaign contribution,’” Womble said.

Legislators said the bills were too complex to rush through in one year. Del. Riley Ingram, a real estate broker and co-chairman of the House committee that handled many of the bills, said he is leery of hurting the building industry because it creates thousands of jobs.

Ingram, a Hopewell Republican, said localities are trying to have it both ways, improving their standards of living while blocking growth. “If you want economic development, you have to have people,” he said.

Other legislators pointed out that localities can control growth through zoning. They said poor zoning decisions have created many of the current problems. Local officials admit that poor planning has occurred but say they lack the power to reverse those decisions.

Even legislators who opposed the bills said they know growth management will become more of an issue as suburban sprawl spreads. Womble agreed, saying his group is just getting started.

“The first year was going to be an educational process, getting people’s attention,” he said. “I think we’ve done that. They know we’re real.”