The Biggest Offender of Them All

There are huge disconnects between transportation and land use planning in the Washington New Urban Region. State/local government, the usual offender, is not the only perpetrator. Alec MacGillis with the Washington Post examines the impact of locational decisions made by the federal government.

Recent offenders: The FBI, the FDA and the Pentagon. In case after case, federal agencies have sought to save money by moving to lower-cost real estate on the fringe of the region. But they costs they save are their own. They are not considering the impact of longer commutes for employees, or the burden on state/local government to build new transportation facilities to serve the new job locations.

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21 responses to “The Biggest Offender of Them All”

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    The story did NOT contain any evidence, except unsupported statements, that worker commutes would actually increase on average by these moves. I’m not arguing that the comments were necessarily wrong, but where are the data? The Washington Council of Governments has detailed commuting data broken down by transportation by Traffic Analysis Zone.

    Keep in mind that quite a few Fairfax County officials receive huge campaign contributions from the owners of large office buildings in the county and from landowners who would like to build more offices in the county. Most of these same people support higher taxes to build roads and rail.

    Let’s see the data before we accept the rhetoric.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I agree, how do we know the commutes are longer? Doesn’t the FBI have any work that isn’t in the core area? And if not,isn’t that one reason people are moving out?

    Anyway, if those people trade their $600,000 home for a $400,000 home in Manassas, which is closer to work, then aren’t they better off than if they made a similar switch in the other direction?

    No matter what we do, we are going to have some kind of burden for supporting or improving transportation new or expanded job locations. The developers at Crystal City are ready to tear those buildings down and renew them anyway: they have outlived their usefulness and they are “tired”. Where is the evidence that supplying more capacity to crystal city is less expensive than building new at Fort Belvoir?

    The article claims the Pentagon is saving $46 billion on its moves but says the move has the effect of wasting the $10 billion spent on Metro. Nonsense. Metro will still be over used, and even if the argument is partly true the $46 billion savings far outways the “loss”.

    Let’s face it. What Metro needs is more stations in the central area: Georgetown, Baileys Crossroads, Western Alexandria, Shirlington, Annandale, are just a few. Then the whole thing needs to be double tracked to allow for express trains. And in addition to Rail to Dulles, it needs other spurs such as Annapolis, Centreville/Manssas/Warrenton, and Fredericksburg.

    Then the whole thing needs to be double tracked. That $10 billion was a modest down payment on what it will take to make Metro really work.

    Compared to that, the cost of moving would seem cheap.

    I think the government has recognized new realities while the planners are still stuck in reactionary mode with plans that are still failing after 30 years of trying.

    For starters, Loudoun now has the highest per capita income in the state. These are not people who need to drive to qualify, and if they wanted to live in TOD or closer in, they could afford to.

    I think the article was bunk.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    So… WHERE is the “preferred” place for them to go?

    … and as TMT suggests – what criteria is used in determining the “right” place.

    The article implied that moving these agencies “out” is bad.. and that they should stay/relocate within some area not defined as “out”; I hesitate to say urban core.

    It appears to me… that there is a tacit assumption that growing “up” rather than “out” is thought to be the preferred path.

    and “up” means … mobility by transit – not private auto… I would suspect.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Go look at the Policy Soup thread on this. Even the Chamber of Commerce blog is questioning whether Fairfax should promote still more jobs it cannot properly support, and whether any kind of affordable housing in Fairfax is possible.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    well.. it appears we’re holding the Feds to a certain “standard” … though not clear to me exactly what… but not businesses….

    but unless there is a sea change in thinking… I still cannot imagine any locality telling the Feds or private entities to “go away”… “we don’t want or need your jobs”.

    Isn’t this not really too different than talking about developers of new homes… and the infrastructure needs associated with those new homes?

    Aren’t we really talking about ANY kind of development.. and the needs to provision infrastructure to service it?

    Developers in Va are opposed to APF – because they believe .. that localities MUST provide infrastructure for development.

    The back story behind APF is that localities might use it to … say… “enough” but the development community strongly believes that localities do not have this right – and so they oppose APF as a potential “back-door” way of saying “enough” (but then of course – they are also opposed to the buyers of their development pay for it either – and that it is ultimately the responsibility of all taxpayers to pay for that infrastructure – whether they want the growth or not.

    Am I wrong?

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Growing up rather than out is thought to be the preferred path by whom? Not the high dollar employees who have been moving to Loudoun.

    Mobility by transit is an oxymoron, because mobility is limited to those places transit serves. That will never be more than a small fraction of the places people will want to go.

    What “up” really means is mobility by transit in addition to mobility by auto, even if it means you can tolerate slightly less of the latter.

    Metro now takes in only a fraction of what it takes to maintain and operate, and a miniscule amount of what it will need soon.

    Planners need to understand that a balcony is not equivalent to a yard and transit is not equivalent to an auto. The “customers” for their plans will see those deficits as an expense, in addition to the high cost of supporting Metro and an in-town residence. Not to mention all the other in-town infrastructure problems.

    MCOG suggests that, at most, we will accommodate 15% of the expected new residents in TOD. So the real question is what is the “preferred” place for the other 85%, and who gets to do the “preferring”, them, or us?

    If we think it is going to be us, then we better be prepared to spend an awful lot of money to entice them into thinking as we do.

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I think most developers are willing to pay for infrastructure, as noted in the comments of one developer in Spotsylvania. What they really want is a system that is fair, transparent, and most of all, predictable.

    Right now the only thing that is predictable is that the answer will be NIMBY.

    What they cannot do is absorb the cost of 100% of new infrastructure plus the cost of cleaning up all the problems related to previously deferred infrastructure, plus the cost of old infrastructure that was inadequately maintained and upgraded.

    I think the idea that developers are opposed to fair and reasonable charges is wrong, but the recent situation in Warrenton, and other previous court rulings show that localities can be just as unreasonable as developers.

    An APF plan cannot work unless there is a mandated responsibilty to actually supply the APF’s. Development and growth is going to happen, and somewhere, sometime, it will be the government’s responsibility to see that APF is provided. Certainly government can ask, and expect to receive, help from the developers, but the depth of their pockets is limited, too.

    Unreasonable demands on developers will result in a lack of homes and higher costs for everybody, and these costs cannot be controlled or planned for by government. If we expect to use unreasonable demands on developers as the cure for growth problems, we may very well find out the cure is worse than the disease, and less manageable.

    New growth is only part of our problem, and we can’t expect them to pay for new growth, and all our other problems as well. Short of following the thinking in “A Modest Proposal” we can be sure that all those new people are going to cause us discomfort and expense.

    So, where do you draw the line? Next to your backyard, or next to mine?

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    I was quite disappointed in the superficial nature of the reporting. The reporter, Alec MacGillis, seems to be one of the better young journalist. His stories are generally fairly in depth and he seems willing to ask questions that might not be favored by the paper’s editors. I hope this one was an anomoly.

    I noticed that the Post’s circulation continues to decline as does subscribership for most big papers. It’s more than just the Internet, IMO. The Post simply is not reporting news that conflicts with its editorial goals. (Has anyone seen any in depth reporting about the problems at VDOT and the CTB? Has a story addressed why Tim Kaine ran from his campaign promise to delay development where the roads are inadequate to handle the added traffic or why he’s supporting the Silver Line when State data show it will not improve traffic congestion?) The quality of reporting shows. There are now too many other media sources to get the full story or the stories that the Post ignores.

    Common sense would dictate that the MSM start focusing on the readers and not on the political and economic desires of their editors.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Let me clarify – when I say “developers”.. I mean many – as Ray pointed out… examples of developers, including one in Spotsylvania who are on track with the infrastructure issue.

    But … when we say “rezone” – we mean – a negotiation between the locality and the entity that wants the locality to approve the rezone.

    Go to State Law to understand why the developer is not entitled to the rezone to start with.

    What this means – in practical terms – is that if the locality is concerned with quality of life and level of service – regardless of whether it is about old, new or indifferent infrastructure – that it IS.. in the eyes of the locality and it’s citizens whether or not they want more intensive land-use.

    It does not even have to be “fair”. It can be that they’ll approve ONLY if older or inadequate infrastructure is part of the deal.

    The Spotsylvania developer that Ray alluded to, actually there are about 3 right now – fully understand these dynamics and their proposals INCLUDE upgrading and improvements of existing infrastructure as part of the “deal”.

    The county cooperates also – with CDAs – which require county involvement with the financing and bonding.

    Other developers from outside have come into the county… fully intending to exercise their full development rights – only to be sent packing… because they seriously underestimated their rights with respect to “rezone”.

    So – the bottom line – there is no need for APF in Spotsylvania right now – but the problem is – as illustrated in other counties in this blog that a lot depends on personalities currently in charge – and not standardized processes. Even in Spotsylvania, the next elections may produce a completely different paradigm… rejecting the current approach.

    You can have two adjacent counties in Virginia – and the rules are completely different. One can argue about the merits of localized control being a good thing – but when it comes to growth – there is such a huge diversity across a region that as pointed out in the VDOT study of Loudoun – folks far beyond that county can be affected.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    TMT – I’m not sure it is up to the media to foster change through it’s reporting.

    I’d agree that this can be the net effect of some reporting but in the end – citizens involvement is what causes change and in this day of the internet… gathering info and making it available to citizens is much easier to accomplish.

    I have some familiarity with this because I was involved in a citizens group that got involved in the last elections that resulted in two irresponsible supervisors being replaced with two supervisors who were true to their word in better managing growth.

    We extensively used information posted on a website and email to get the word out and to get out the vote.

    Fairfax is bigger.. and so the job bigger ..but I do think it works the same way.

    There are also excellent existing groups such as the Coalition for Smarter Growth,

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I don’t have any problem with what Larry says about rezoning. I would only point out that the same arguments cut the other direction: the county has no more right to a downzoning than the developer does to an upzoning.

  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think until the late 1990s Virginia counties could downzone. I know Spotsylvania did so.

    But the reality is that most “by-right” development rights are not very intensive in terms of land-use and most development proposals require rezoning approval… anyhow.

    so.. the negotiation between the developer and the community with respect to impacts and mitigation – does take place and citizens have means to oppose projects they don’t like – but it does take more than one or two – it takes (and should) a substantial number of them.

  13. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Isn’t Loudoun working on a downzoning plan for the western part of the county to replace the one that was overthrwon by the court? When were counties prohibited from downzoning, and why?

    Fauquier had an effective downzoning recently, by reducing the number of administrative lots from three to one. The administrative lot concept was introduced to aleviate the pain associated with the previous downzoning. Its purpose was to get land owners to accept the downzoning by granting them a few lots that did not require a full administrative review.

    When the administrative lots were reduced, the sole reason given was that people were “taking advantage of the law.”

    The change was introduced retroactively. What this meant was that if you had cut off a lot for your daughter, with the idea you might later cut one off for your younger son, too bad. You have used your one administrative lot. Your son’s lot is going to cost you a bundle.

    When the administrative lots were reduced, the county effectively reneged on a previous promise.

    Just as in Loudoun County, the change and the potential effect of the change were not well explained or advertised. I approaced a neighbor, who was on the plnning board and asked what the story was. “Oh, its nothing, just a little more paperwork.”

    She didn’t say it was $80,000 + worth of “paperwork”.

    It is true, most by-right development is not very land use intensive, today. That is partly because of previous downzonings. Those downzonings occurred before the county decided that building rights were valuable property, and before the county instituted a program to buy them.

    It does take a number of citizens to oppose a project, but it doesn’t cost them very much to do so compared to the cost that an applicant has to endure, just in order to get back rights that he once had, “by right”. Particularly if they have a board that is partial to their views to begin with.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think it can still be done but it must be done strictly according to law and process or else it can be challenged.

    So – the main point here is that localities DO have that RIGHT which supersedes landowners thinking that they have “development rights” that cannot be taken away.

    The downzoning rule – like others – is that it cannot be arbitrary and capricious – it must apply in a general way and not be “spot” and it must be based on the needs of the community – as determined by law and process by their elected officials.

    But .. the bottom line is that “property rights” and more specifically “development rights” are not cast in stone and as far as I know not enumerated specifically in the Constitution and great leeway and discretion is given to the State and the localities to determine what is in the best interests of the community as a whole.

    This cuts both ways. Approving rezones that do not adequately mitigate their impact is actually a bigger “wrong” in my opinion because many landowners are affected rather than one.

  15. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Development rights are property. That they are property is recognized by the fact that government and other agencies buy this property.

    Property cannot be taken away without compensation.

  16. Ray Hyde Avatar

    See the story in this week’s Time Magazine, entitled “This Land is My Land”.

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “development rights are property”

    Development is something you can do on a property – contingent on permission.

    What you can development on a property – can and does change with respect to State and Local laws…

    I know that downzones happen and that can affect what you can build or not.

    Ditto with septic tank rules. What was allowed 30 years ago is not allowed today and that can affect what you can build.

    I can go on but the point is that ownership of the physical property is not the same as what one can do with that property.

    AS previously discussed. I had a parcel. It could be subdivided ONCE.

    A few years later – it could not.

    That same lot could have had a house built without a reserve septic field.

    Now it must have a viable reserve site.

    These rules were implemented county-wide so that the action could not be termed arbitrary and capricious – that “magic” phrase that lawyers use.

  18. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    I’m no land use lawyer, but as I read the cases, if a county reissues its Comprehensive Plan for the entire county or a significant part thereof (a magisterial district) and can demonstrate that building to the the existing zoning would, when coupled with changed circumstances, negatively affect the public health, welfare or safety, it can downzone. My understanding is that a county may not downzone selected parcels within an area. I’m sure that it’s more complicated that this, but this seems to be the high-level statement of the law. Needless to say, I welcome corrections.

    Now reasonable people could still argue that this is unfair, but so can reasonable people argue that not downzoning when the facts would dictate to the contrary is unfair as well.

  19. Ray Hyde Avatar

    The county should accept an alternate plan to a septic field if it is designened and certified by a qualified engineer. There are plenty of alternative systems around, but these are mostly not allowed or are considered to be experimental.

    I had to go through a similar drill to get my foundation plans approved for what the county claimed was unstable soil. The soil wasn’t unstable and was tested and certified. The county rejected the engineers report and a special foundation was designed and built. All that money and time and resources were wasted.

    It is easy to create bogus facts or requirements and then claim that they dictate a downzoning. The fact remains that the downzoning makes all the existing properties more valuable and all the prospective ones less valuable. It is a giant transfer of wealth that amounts to stealing, whatever the stated reasons are.

    If you are in an area like Catlett that has terrible soil then a large reserve makes sense. But most places a proper septic field may last a hundred years. What is the point in denying the use of that land just so that a hundred years from now you can move the septic field, if needed?

    This kind of crap sets up a real catch 22. The large lot requirements mean that you can never have enough density to justify sewage treatment, and if you ever did get sewer installed you’d have to go through a rezoning just to use a lot that previously existed. Meanwhile most of the existing homes are getting along fine with no reserve, an no requirement for one.

    It would be just as easy to find alternate means to meet the sewage requirements, if they wanted to. But what they really want is – nothing – and they are using the sewage requirements as an excuse to get it.

    I think it is cheap, mean, and unethical.

  20. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “These rules were implemented county-wide so that the action could not be termed arbitrary and capricious…”

    And what they got was a rule that is arbitrary and capricious countywide.

    This is just stupid, stupid, stupid. There are probably plenty of five acre sites where you could put in a viable reserve site, if it is ever needed. Or maybe there is a site where you have enough for 95% of a reserve site. The county should be looking for ways to make things possible, not ways to make them impossible. I’m with Jim Bacon on this.

    But as long as there is a mindset that says residential housing is a net loss to the county, there will be someone who can raise a hypothetical objection over something that may never come to pass. As long as existing residents can raise their value and pass the costs off somewhere else, it will continue to happen.

    There has got to be some balance between alleged costs that new neighbors may cause to existing ones, someday, and real and existing costs their objections cause to current neighbors.

  21. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Geeze Ray.. if Spotsylvania still had 15K population… and one school and one EMS and more cows than people, I’d agree with you but .. despite what some view as continuing unfair and psuedo-illegal land-use decisions… we have.. 115,000 souls… and a god awful bunch of schools and retail store to sell stuff to all of those folks…

    .. AND we got houses on lots that have failing septic… rural roads who edges have been turned into asphalt crumbs by concrete trucks…

    .. by the way.. “alternative” systems ARE allowed under certain conditions.. it’s a state law I believe.

    anyhow… with the exception of Facquier… just about every other jurisdiction has experienced significant development – Stafford and Spotsy are in the top 20 in the entire country.. so I’m not sure claiming that “unfair” or “dumb” land-use rules have caused .. harm… will be a very convincing argument to loose up restrictions…

    I think the first guy to run on that platform… “no more land restrictions” .. better make sure he’s got a “day” job for plan “b”. 🙂

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