Census figures released in March confirm what Virginians have known for years: The state’s population is growing rapidly and sprawling farther over the landscape.
From 1990 to 2000, Virginia’s population grew from 6.3 million to 7.1 million, a 14 percent increase. And while 80 percent of its population lives in cities and surrounding suburbs, the urban cores continue to lose people while the suburbs continue to expand.
In fact, from 1992–97, about 50,000 acres a year were developed in Virginia’s portion of the Bay watershed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Inventory. Meanwhile, the Bay states have agreed to curb the rate of development within the watershed 30 percent by 2012.
To grapple with the issue, the state General Assembly, after failing to pass growth-related legislation, this year agreed to set up its third study committee in the past decade to examine growth-related issues.
Of the Bay states, Virginia has taken the least state-level action to manage growth. That can handicap local government efforts because Virginia is a “Dillon Rule” state, which means local authority must be specifically authorized by the General Assembly.
But, a new book suggests, counties don’t necessarily need to wait for state action to tame sprawl.
“The Dillon Rule, in some ways, is a self-defeating prophecy,” said Edward McMahon, director of Land Use Programs with the Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit organization. “People like to think that they can’t ever do anything, so they don’t ever do anything. There are a lot of communities that are doing very innovative things.”
McMahon was the lead author of a new book from the Conservation Fund, “Better Models for Development in Virginia,” which argues that local governments already have tools available to help create more consolidated, better-looking communities, while preserving rural landscapes — if they choose to use them.
But Virginia’s counties, McMahon acknowledges, may have fewer items in their growth management toolboxes than their counterparts in the other Bay states.
For example, Virginia counties can’t use transferable development rights like local governments in Maryland and Pennsylvania, which allow development credits to be bought in areas that are meant to stay rural — allowing farmers to realize the development value of their land — to create higher-density developments elsewhere.
But some counties have still found effective ways to protect rural land, the book notes. Isle of Wight County has designated 70 percent of its area as a rural/agriculture conservation district, with only limited low-density development allowed. The effect is to preserve more open space while promoting more compact developments.
Fauquier County requires that 85 percent of the tracts in rural areas be retained in permanent open space when development occurs. Other counties have established funding programs for open space purchase or protection.
“There is a popular misconception that local governments don’t have the authority to do anything, and that is not true,” McMahon said. “The authorities they have under current law allow them to do lots of innovative things.”
Before counties take such actions, McMahon’s book suggests, they need to first visualize — with public input — what they want their landscape to look like in the future. Is it important to preserve resources lands such as farms and forests? Preserve historic sites and natural areas? Maintain a clear boundary between developed and rural areas?
Once people agree on a vision, counties can assess their own plans to see whether they aid — or conflict — with those objectives. Too often, McMahon said, sprawl is not the result of developers, but zoning policies that make it difficult to cluster homes, build narrower streets and incorporate mixed uses into developments.
And sometimes, zoning aimed at curbing sprawl actually promotes it. Often, McMahon points out, counties establish large-lot zoning to hold back development. Frequently, they end up with lots of between 2 and 10 acres — areas too big to mow, too small to farm and ineffectively sized to curb sprawl.
For large-lot zoning to be meaningful, the book says, lots probably need to be bigger: In Virginia, Rappahannock County has a 25-acre zone, and Essex, Albemarle and several other counties have 20-acre zones. Some states, such as Maryland, have areas with 50-acre zones, and California’s Napa Valley has zones of one house per 100 acres or more.
Many areas already have large areas zoned for one-acre development, and changing that would be politically difficult, it not impossible. Still, McMahon said, counties can reduce sprawl by changing density requirements — an approach that has been taken in Loudoun County. If an area is zoned for 100 1-acre lots, the density can be changed to have 100 half-acre lots, thereby allowing 100 houses, but also keeping 50 acres of open space.
That also reduces the amount of infrastructure — roads, sewer lines and stormwater controls — that developers must build. “People will pay more money to live in a house next to open space,” McMahon said. “And there is no political downside to doing that because you are not changing the underlying zoning. You just separate lot size from density, which they can do under current law.”
To show what is at stake, the book drives home the choices before Virginians with scores of comparison photographs: a compact subdivision with tree-lined sidewalks linking homes vs. a standard subdivision with houses separated by wide streets and vast yards between homes; new development taking a bite out of forests vs. redevelopment in an existing community; roads cluttered with signs and billboards vs. roads that offer a view of the landscape; and so on.
It offers examples of fast food restaurants, chain drugstores and other developments that have been designed to promote — rather than detract from — community character.
“The biggest impediment to better development anywhere in the United States is low expectations,” McMahon said. “People just don’t know what better development looks like. Successful communities are the communities that essentially create a plan and stick to it. If you say no to bad development, you almost always will get better development in its place.”
The statewide book grew out of a similar volume the Conservation Fund developed for the Shenandoah Valley two years ago, which has had more than 6,000 copies distributed, and two printings. It has stirred interest in creating better growth, and McMahon has since given talks in every county in the valley at least once.
Based on that success, the Virginia Environmental Endowment approached the Conservation Fund to create a similar book for the entire state. Volumes are in the works for Maryland and Pennsylvania as well.
In the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, the three Bay states agreed to reduce the annual rate of sprawl by 30 percent. According to recently released federal figures, that means limiting development in the watershed to 90,000 acres a year, from the annual development rate of 128,000 acres that took place between 1992 and 1997.
The 108-page book is available from The Conservation Fund by calling 703-525-6300 or visiting its web site, www.conservationfund.org for details.