- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

Loudoun County is not just the fourth-fastest-growing county in the nation. It is also the site of a major fight between home builders and the county's new board of supervisors, which thinks the current construction boom is the region's biggest problem.
Scott York, chairman of the county board and chairman of a coalition of Virginia counties also struggling with fast growth, is right in the thick of the squabble. He has called for a number of initiatives to rein in growth, including impact fees, a slowdown in construction permits and zoning changes to reduce the number of new homes built.
Last November's elections gave Loudoun County and other regional jurisdictions a governing panel that favors controls on growth. The 8-to-1 majority is taking its views to a once-a-decade review of the county's comprehensive plan this year. The review would set guidelines for county development over the next decade.
They may not get what they want. Some of Mr. York's ideas depend on state permission which Richmond legislators have refused to give. And home builders have warned Mr. York they'll sue if changes go too far.
Question: Do you support environmentalists' calls for reducing development rights by rewriting the comprehensive plan, and concentrating growth in certain areas?
Answer: Right now every suggestion is on the table. One of the things that was argued by the builders' association was that counties are to blame for their own problem, that what they've done is overzoned and they can't handle it, and they don't have the courage to do what it takes, and that is to redo the zoning categories.
The point to understand growth concerns primarily comes from two areas. One is the impact to the environment and the quality of life. The other aspect is the financial concerns. Growth that has occurred in the '90s and continues right now is causing us to build an average of two classrooms a week in order to keep up with schools.
This board has stated that it wants to ensure that the western or the rural economy stays viable and I think that the conclusion is that housing is not necessarily conducive to ensuring a rural economy. Tourism is a big part of that. People like to get away from the city.
Q: But hasn't Loudoun County grown mainly because of the high-technology economy moving into this area?
A: There are two areas within Loudoun County. You have your urban-suburban growth area, where the high-tech industry is locating, and then the rural area, which is what we're trying to preserve. And I firmly believe there is room for both. The board has to have a better understanding of the impacts of growth in the west. Some towns still depend on well water. You have septic systems. We have undertaken a groundwater study to understand the effects of growth in the west.
The other concern is that under the general plan, new schools are best located in the towns or their urban growth areas right around the town itself.
[Our] staff did a study last year with the build-out based on today's zoning. Right now we would not be able to handle the number of students associated with physically locating in those plans.
Q: Do you support down planning as a solution?
A: I'm going through and waiting for staff's review and report back to the planning commission and the board. I currently am leaning to support, as a result of my initiative two years ago, what we did in the Dulles South and the Toll Road area, the creation of a transition zone and put a real element of phasing into it so we could better phase our growth.
And I've kind of leaned toward taking those areas and instead of having those areas made phased-in areas for eventual high density, they would best be left as a transition zone to our rural areas and be a buffer of less density than an urban area, but more than is in our suburban area. So far I haven't seen anything to indicate changing those boundaries.
Q: Do you see any comfortable compromise between developers who want more growth and environmentalists who want less?
A: The people of Loudoun County are concerned about growth, some from the environmental perspective. Others because they're tired of sitting in traffic, and there's no money coming from Richmond to address the situation. They're concerned about overcrowded classrooms. They're concerned about having to move their kids from school to school. Then there's the fiscal restraint. Right now we're almost adding $100 million to the capital improvement program in bonded debt every year.
Q: If financial concerns are so important, why did the board of supervisors recently cut property taxes by 3 cents?
A: The other aspect is keeping their tax rates reasonable. We have steadily seen increases in tax rates, going up this year. The values have gone up. At the same time we lowered the tax rate to try to make up a pretty significant increase in real estate values since about the late '80s.
Q: Do you think you'll eventually reverse course on that and raise taxes in order to fund the schools and pay for other costs of growth that Loudoun County is seeing now.
A: One of the benefits that we've had this year is that the distribution of funds by the state is based on interesting calculation. We will probably see less state money for operations because … our average household income is going up dramatically. And we've got other situations creeping upon us that will increase the pressure on the tax rate. The debt is mushrooming. We are right around $30 million in debt service and we are looking, around about 2006, to be about $90 million in debt service.
Q: For the second year in a row, the state has not granted counties additional growth controls. What do you think you can do to control growth?
A: In terms of what we're doing with the comprehensive plan, I think there are several things on the table. The one thing I would like additional out of Richmond is an impact fee for school construction. Because now, between schools and the other amenities such as libraries, it costs Loudoun County taxpayers about $21,000 a unit to put in facilities. It would help a great deal if we could get about $6,000 to close the capital cost of putting up schools.
Also there's a proposal from Jim Burton, supervisor from Mercer. It's the affordability index. It would give us the ability when certain indicators were to exceed our affordability that we could then start to shut the valve on the number of permits issued in a given year. We've averaged about 5,000 to 6,000 building permits a year. So if there's a problem one year, the rate could go to 50 percent or 25 percent but it's all based on economic affordability.
Q: A number of companies have put down money on land they hope to develop.
A: Speculative development. Well, I wish I could get the same deal on investing in the stock market. Again, we have to balance out what people call the property rights issues with the needs and concerns of the community.
Because of property rights, our school system is in stress, keeping up with school construction. Imagine trying to hire 300 to 600 teachers a year and staff support for the facilities. And how do we do that? That's what we're working on.
Q: What about controlling growth though buying land or reducing the pace of permitting?
A: Right now the county has approved its purchase of development rights program. That is a small tool. The other thing is to use our rural economy to find other options for the farming community not to sell out to a Toll brothers or somebody else. Again I think there are certain areas of the county that are appropriate to have growth. But what's hurting us is the fast pace of growth.

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