Virginians believe that sprawl is the primary reason for a decline in the quality of life in their state, and overwhelmingly support laws that would give local governments more authority to manage growth, according to a new poll.

Nonetheless, state lawmakers this year postponed until 2004 any action on a series of growth management bills.

Three bills would have allowed cities and counties to defer approving new subdivisions if such basic needs as water and sewer service, roads, schools and fire protection were inadequate. A Senate committee dispatched those measures to a commission for a yearlong study.

Another bill would have given localities the same ability to stall residential development if there is an insufficient water supply to sustain it. It was routed to the Water Commission, which studies the state’s water supply and needs, for a yearlong study.

Representatives of real estate and home construction organizations had warned lawmakers of “devastating effects on the economic health of Virginia,” if they granted city councils and county boards of supervisors the power to slow projects.

“It will affect our ability to compete for jobs and capital investment,” said Michael Barrett, a Virginia Beach developer representing the Virginia Association of Commercial Real Estate. “Make no mistake about it, we think our prosperity and the success of our localities and economic development are inextricably bound with residential development.”

Some suggested the Senate committee’s action reflected the financial influence of the development industry. Through 2002, no industry contributed more cash to candidates for state office in Virginia than the $4.6 million the real estate and construction industry gave, according to figures compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

“One senator said to me that I was asking him to choose between his constituents and his campaign contributors, and he’s right — I was,” said Sen Leslie Byrne, D-Fairfax County, who sponsored one of the bills deferred for more study.

The committee’s Jan. 28 action came only hours after a poll was released showing that 77 percent of the respondents supported giving localities more power to manage growth.

The survey of 1,200 Virginians found that 77 percent rated the quality of life in the state as excellent or good, but that was down from 86 percent just three years ago. Those who said the quality of life was deteriorating cited growth as the main reason.

The poll also found that growth management had replaced education when people were asked what was the most important issue facing their community. Of those polled, 39 percent named growth management as the lop local issue, followed by 25 percent citing education, 14 percent saying the economy, 7 percent listing the state’s budget crisis, and 5 percent each saying high taxes or crime.

The percent naming growth as the primary issue jumped dramatically in rapidly developing areas. Sixty-eight percent of those in Northern Virginia, 52 percent in the Central Piedmont, 47 percent in the Lower Shenandoah Valley and 41 percent in the Hampton Roads region listed growth as the top local concern.

In addition, the majority of people polled in all those regions said they were “very concerned” about the impact of current land use policies, except for the Lower Shenandoah Valley, where 49 percent agreed.

Fifty-eight percent of voters statewide said the quality of life would deteriorate if current growth and land-use policies continued over the next five years. And six out of 10 voters rated their county governments’ efforts to control sprawl as poor or fair.

On specific growth management policies, 78 percent supported legislation that would allow local communities to adopt ordinances to restrict development if there was not adequate public facilities, such as roads, schools and water and sewer systems.

Eighty-two percent support legislation allowing local governments to assess “impact fees” on new developments to lessen the taxpayer’s burden in supporting construction of roads, schools and other infrastructure. And 85 percent supported having the state provide local communities with more technical assistance and planning support to adopt “smart growth” policies.

The poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, was supported by the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

The groups warned that politicians who fail to recognize sprawl as a problem could pay a price as voters go to the polls this fall, when all 140 seats in the House and Senate are up for re-election: 81 percent of those polled said they would consider a candidate’s position on growth, land use and sprawl when they voted.

Larry Harris, of Mason-Dixon, said unfettered sprawl is a daily aggravation that is showing increasing potency in local and regional elections, but one that legislative candidates don’t yet fully comprehend.

“Sprawl is very visible,” he said. “People see it; they get caught in traffic. It’s bulldozers pushing things around, and it’s becoming a very powerful motivator. There’s a lot more to this than just public opinion.”