Guest Column

Christopher Miller and Stewart Schwartz

Chris Miller

Growth in All the Wrong Places


The costs are adding up. New census data indicate that Virginia should examine the costs of its sprawling, land-gobbling pattern of development.


Editor's Note: This column is adapted from a press release issued by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council.


Recently released census data listing Virginia counties as among the fastest growing counties in the nation comes at a time when the General Assembly is frozen in debate over how to meet the costs of this growth. Even more disturbing is recently published data by the Environmental Protection Agency and others showing the effects of this growth on our quality of life, including an increase in impaired water, more counties failing to meet air quality standards, and loss of more than 40,000 acres a year that include important agricultural lands, historic resources and critical wildlife habitat.


The U.S. Census Bureau announced revised census data on Thursday, April 8 that identifies Loudoun County as the fastest growing county in the nation (30.7 percent growth rate), and growth rates in six other Virginia counties in the top 100, including Stafford (20 percent); Spotsylvania (19 percent); Prince William County (16 percent); Suffolk (15.4 percent); Fluvanna (15.1 percent); and Culpeper (12.5 percent). These estimates are for the year ending July 1, 2003, so they don’t include new growth during the past nine months.


Costs of Growth and State Budget Woes


Virginia’s lawmakers continue to debate over budget woes, particularly funding for education and transportation. Meanwhile, a new Brookings Institution[1] report indicates that there are a host of quantifiable fiscal and social benefits to smarter development patterns, including enhanced economic performance in both suburbs and urban areas.


“The Brookings report is one more piece of evidence that we must transition to more efficient growth strategies that can help make fiscal ends meet and lower costs associated with meeting public policy goals,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “In the meantime, lawmakers and the Virginia Commission on Growth and Development must consider how to bridge the transition to better planning and empowering local governments to fully capture the costs of new growth."


Costs of Growth at the Local Level


In the wake of unprecedented growth rates, communities are struggling to develop balanced budgets by May 1. Once again, local government committees at the General Assembly refused to enact legislation expanding local growth management tools and empowering localities to collect impact fees. The development community and the Virginia legislature continue to obstruct solutions that are vastly popular with Virginia’s electorate. Prince William, for example, has had a recommendation that the County recoup more of the initial capital costs for growth, but the recommendation is opposed by the development community and has been deferred by the county’s board.


In another instance, after withdrawing from the Coalition of High Growth Communities, Loudoun County’s new pro-growth board opposed state legislation to enable counties to better meet the costs of growth and sprawl.


"The failure to recoup the cost of new development is increasing the tax burden for citizens in Virginia's high growth counties," remarked Peggy Maio of the Piedmont Environmental Council. "Amazingly, Loudoun County has historically recovered only two percent of the capital costs of new growth through the proffer system."


The cost of growth for local taxpayers is often underestimated. Loudoun County has calculated that rezoning land can cost taxpayers over $37,000 per each single family detached dwelling for capital improvements alone.


Better Planning for Better Fiscal Efficiency


The USDA reports[2] infrastructure costs for “sprawl” development were five to 25 percent higher than for compact development. “We are so inefficient. With more compact development patterns, we could recapture nearly 25 percent of road-building, water and sewer and services costs over the next 25 years,” says Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “When budgets are tight, it makes sense to reduce the costs of providing public infrastructure and services through good planning and to recapture costs of development at the local level with impact fees or similar tools.”

“Each year, the Piedmont and other areas of Virginia face hundreds of rezoning requests for mega-developments like Clevengers Corner in Culpeper that put pressure on local governments to expand public utilities. If each new home costs Culpeper taxpayers $1.22 for every $1.00 in tax revenue paid[3], how can we expect to afford approval of a 766-home development if the related sewer and water expansion leads to 3,335 new homes almost overnight?” asked Jolly de Give of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “It isn’t enough for counties to rely on proffers. Localities need better tools to capture the costs of new residential growth."


Hidden Costs in Pollution Associated with Poorly Planned Growth


The costs of dealing with pollution increases associated with poorly planned development are adding up. Runoff from development sites is one of the top factors contributing to a jump in the number of the state’s polluted waterways, according to a new report released by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Virginia’s 2004 water quality report, a 1,600-page document which cost DEQ over $2 million to complete, found 52 percent of Virginia’s waterways are impaired, up from 5 percent in 1996 and 44 percent in 2000. By 2010, Virginia must spend at least $60 million to meet the EPA’s requirement to complete 640 TMDL investigations of troubled waterways. This price tag does not include the costs of actual clean up.

The costs to public health and drain on county coffers associated with declining air quality are staggering. Sprawl development leads to more vehicles traveling longer distances and higher levels of pollution such as ozone, reversing the effects of improvements in vehicle emissions. As we develop further away from central job markets the public health bill is growing exponentially. More localities fail to meet the health-based standard for air quality.  The bill grows larger still as increased pollution effects crops and agricultural revenues and adds to nitrogen loads in waterways, making it even more difficult for the state to meet its commitment to nitrogen reduction in the Chesapeake Bay.


We can expect more summer red alert days as people commute longer distances to work, leading to a rise in hospital visits and incidents of asthma,” says Dan Holmes of the Piedmont Environmental Council and a member of the State Advisory Board on Air Pollution. “Fauquier and other counties that face inclusion in non-attainment areas may see restrictions on federal transportation dollars and direct costs to citizens and local businesses, including higher fees for vehicle inspection and maintenance and more obvious health care costs associated with higher pollution levels."


Sprawl Costs Communities their Special Places


Between 1970 and 1990 the Washington area saw a 40.9 percent increase in the per capita consumption of land, making it the fourth-highest metroplitan area for the consumption of land for those decades. Not only is growth occurring in the wrong places, the amount of land consumed by each new resident is increasing. Sprawl is now placing tangible threats to lands that hold valuable historic, cultural and natural resources, including Crow’s Nest in Stafford, Courtland Woods on the border of Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in Loudoun, Clevengers Corner in Culpeper, Chancellorsville Battlefield in Spotsylvania, parts of the Hebron Valley in Madison and Manassas Battlefield Park in Prince William. According to the 2002 USDA Census Of Agriculture, Virginia loses 233 acres of farmland every day, or close to half a million acres since 1997.


Better Solutions to the Costs of Sprawl


“Communities face dramatic increases to the costs of preserving priority lands as development and bad planning put pressure on significant unprotected parcels,” said Chris Miller, PEC President. “Directing growth to the right places can relieve some of the pressure on these special places and allow the preservation programs already in place to work.”


“The high infrastructure cost of scattered, sprawling developments in Virginia’s counties, when matched with the socio-economic costs of declining cities and rural areas is the great missing piece in the General Assembly debate over fiscal shortfalls in the state,” said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.


Within blocks of the General Assembly, buildings and lots lie vacant, while Virginia subsidizes companies like Capital One to locate in distant suburban office parks and funds construction of additional bypass highways. To counteract the economic shifts to new bypasses, the state then finds it must help fund revitalization projects in downtown Richmond.


“In addition to the struggle by local governments to produce balanced budgets for education and other local services, the state faces the prospect of finding new revenues for tens of billions of dollars of unnecessary transportation infrastructure costs.”

The Brookings report documents the fiscal benefits to Virginia of smarter growth. The Coalition for Smarter Growth recommends: Stop zoning agricultural land for development, stop building bypasses which simply shift economic development away from downtowns, make outer suburban development pay for the full cost of infrastructure, promote more compact walkable and mixed use development, and target development to downtowns and areas with existing infrastructure.


-- April 26, 2004


The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) is a 32- year-old nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the Virginia Piedmont's rural economy, natural resources, history and beauty. PEC works in a nine-county service area that includes Albemarle, Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Greene, Loudoun, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties to promote voluntary land conservation in the form of conservation easements and agricultural and forestal districts. Currently, there are close to 190,000 acres of land under easement throughout the nine-county region. For more information, visit

The Coalition for Smarter Growth is a joint effort by civic, environmental, and neighborhood groups in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia to promote and realize a vision of a vibrant and sustainable National Capital Region. The Coalition advocates solutions that include greenbelts, expanded transit networks, human-scale walkable communities, and changes to the financial incentives driving sprawl. Visit the Coalition online at or call (202) 588-5570.


The Bureau of Census report can be found here. (Link no longer functions -- editor.)

The Brookings Institute, Investing in a Better Future: A Review of the Fiscal and Competitive Advantages of Smarter Growth


USDA, Development at the Urban Fringe and Beyond: Impacts on Agriculture and Rural Land

DEQ Virginia Impaired Waters


[1] The Brookings Institution, Investing in a Better Future: A Review of the Fiscal and Competitive Advantages of Smarter Growth Development Patterns by Mark Muro and Robert Puentes March 2004.

[2] USDA, Development at the Urban Fringe and Beyond: Impacts on Agriculture and Rural Land.


[3] American Farmland Trust 2003, Culpeper Costs of Community Services Study.































Christopher G. Miller has served as Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) President since January 1996. His e-mail is


Stewart Schwartz is executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. His e-mail is stewart@