How Far the Pendulum Has Swung

The latest data point regarding the widespread re-evaluation of transportation policy is a column in today’s Virginian-Pilot, whose editorial writers for years had steadfastly defined the traffic congestion crisis as a lack of funding. The Pilot’s pundits have awakened to the critical importance of land use! Blow me away — I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own two peepers.

Sayeth the Pilot:

A curious thing happened recently en route to a Loudoun County supervisors’ vote that restricts home building on a bucolic tract west of Dulles International Airport. Land-use legislation that sailed through the Assembly last winter played an important role in drumming up support for controlled growth.

The law, which pro-growth and anti-growth forces alike dismissed as meaningless in March, requires a Virginia Department of Transportation impact statement when localities make land-use decisions affecting roads.

When VDOT – its spine stiffened by the governor’s office – issued its first such report, the forecast stopped the Loudoun County debate dead. Predictions of three-county gridlock spurred a 5-4 vote that could ultimately half a prospective 37,000 new homes.

And how about this?

Serious legislators in both parties recognize that government will never get a handle on transportation spending so long as local governments can approve growth willy-nilly, while passing to the state the tab for maintaining a huge network of roads.

And this:

One plan under consideration would require suburban counties to maintain portions of their own ever-expanding network of roads. That job currently falls to the state under laws written when Virginia was a rural domain three-quarters of a century ago.

As tentatively outlined by Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, a former mayor who understands land-use issues, counties would get a road maintenance allowance from the state, much as cities do today. They might also share in the presumed savings if the locality – rather than VDOT – oversaw the work. Impact fees on development in more rural areas of such counties might steer growth toward density.

The plan is far from official, but the fact that once radical notions are even talked about says how far the pendulum has swung.

The pendulum has swung indeed.

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10 responses to “How Far the Pendulum Has Swung”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Yes – I saw this editorial first thing this morning!

    and I had the same thought – Eureka! they have seen the light!

    It’s taking time but it slowly sinking in that perhaps the concept of VDOT trying to keep up with local jurisdiction growth – was in vain and that only when the locality had a transportation dog in their own grown management hunt.. that the two actually go together.

    If momemtum builds.. towards some changes along these lines – local officials will no longer have VDOT to hide behind when they approve growth without considering transportation impacts. I predict that we’ll see some big changes in local jurisdicition pro-growth incumbents and candidates in the near future.. where citizens will put the question right between their eyes…

    The second part of the equation – is the realization that Regional road authorities which already exist as MPOs in regions such as NoVa and Tidewater… might be given the option of offering to voters… regional sales taxes and tolls for regional roads via referenda.

    Again… once the Region itself has a dog in the hunt.. on both the growth and transportation issues… it encourages something beyond.. “growth happens” .. and we’ll figure out transportation impacts later”….

    Somebody.. has finally realized that the Dillon Rule… needs to be tweaked a tad.. to give localities more latitude AND more responsibility for land-use decisions.

  2. I wouldn’t get too excited about the pendulum swinging. The more it swings the more energy it stores for the next oscillation and the less there is to work with on one side or the other.

    Oregon had most of the growth controls advocated here and it took thirty years for the pendulum to swing. That thirty years consumed the plans and goals for many peoples lives while the clock kept ticking. Eventually, people stormed the polls, twice, and demanded changes. The first time the government ignored the call, and still the conservation interests are claiming the people don’t know what they have done.

    That might be true, but calling a clear majority ignoramuses is no way to win friends for your side of the pendulum.

    Your statement that “Impact fees on development in more rural areas of such counties might steer growth toward density.” is a good example of my comment above that your view of subsidies is one sided.

    The idea that steering growth towards density is a good thing is not a done deal. If it is such a good thing, why does it need steering? Why is artificially increasing costs in rural areas anything like a market driven solution more than it is a negative subsidy? Growth in urban areas are going to have impacts too, where is the unbiased view that urban developers might have to pay impact fees as well? Where is the recognition that everything costs more in urban areas, including infrastructure, and therefore urban impact fees might actually have to be higher in order to support a pay as you go philosophy? Where is the recognition that the impact of urban areas is far larger than their growth footprint, and therefore they have an obligation to support rural areas, not to penalize them?

    I think there are several comments from Robert Deans Article, “Taxpayers Cant Afford ‘Affordable Housing’” that illustrate the point.

    “…proponents of this movement, well meaning as they try to be, have lost sight of the fact that what they want is…to transfer wealth at the point of a gun from your pocket to someone else.” Fill in any movement you like, but that is exactly what targeted impact fees will do.

    “….controls by government bureaucrats who never have produced a profit or created wealth can only lead to Marxism, a tried and true failure.” Replace Marxism with social engineering if you like, but just as in Oregon and Russia people recognize a failure when they see it. The only question is whether the leaders will listen.

    “….give them your check directly, but keep your hands and the hands of government out of my pocket. ” If you want something go buy it, or try to arrange to make it profitable through incentives if you can raise the money. Put your money where your mouth is with regard to a free market and stop advocating punitive and one sided penalties.

    Now, that’s not to say that businesses and individuals don’t cause costs that have to be paid, but only when the assessments are actually equitable will the pendulum stop swinging wildly with just a small oscillation around the norm.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Do you mean.. if the pendulum swings to a system that ends up with more sustainable funding for transportation and infrastructure that it will later “swing back”?

    I don’t think so. The only way that would happen is if the direction it swings .. fails… to produce.

    Impact Fees are fundamentally not designed to penalize people nor punish behaviors. Instead they are a method to fund and build infrastructure that almost everyone acknowledges is needed and without them.. goes delayed and unbuilt.

    Virginia has a system that allows land-owners to profit from development without regard to the infrastructure costs that are imposed on taxpayers. The Dillion Rule essentially ties the hands of localities with respect to trying to assure that infrastructure planning is done in concert with development. Land-use planning if you will.

    There’s no better proof of this than the fact that land-owners can legally put up thousands of homes without regard to the consequences to the road network and the conventionial (failed) wisdom has always been that VDOT will take care of the road part. We’re not at the end of that fantasy.. and real answers are required.

    Ditto with respect to schools and other infrastructure. Virginia has for years “pretended” that adequate public facilities were not real issues.. and I say “pretended” because when localities started collecting “voluntary” proffers – Virginia looked the other way… and allowed it to continue and to spread.

    They had no choice. It’s either collect an impact fee (and pretend it’s a proffer)… or kids will spend their entire school career in a trailer (as opposed to a couple of years)… fire stations will not get built… libraries, et al.

    The “rights” of landowners ends exactly at their property line. If a landowner wants to develop their land – the costs of the infrastructure to service that land is a legitimate cost that should be borne by the developer and the subsequent buyers of the land. Please note I’m distrinquishing between infrastructure and operating costs.

    I’m espousing the same economic principles that are in place for water/sewer – where the landowners pays for capital costs of bringing it to their doorstep – an “availability” fee. Ditto for many other services.

    I can just see a few years from now.. after localities have gotten used to having the infrastructure adequately funded that they are going to willingly stand by while the pendulum swings back. Not likely though I will admit if we get another “roll the car tax back” Gilmore type.. mabye.. but methinks Gilmore was a one-trick pony that the public figured out and won’t let an encore happen.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Correction: “We’re not at the end of that fantasy…”

    .. We’re NOW at the end of that fantasy (the one where VDOT would promise to build every needed road no matter what level/pace of growth and development).

    This is NOT about stopping or slowing growth (as it is perceived to be with Oregon).

    This is about adequate public transportation facilities for whatever level of growth and development is approved.
    (as opposed to ignoring the impacts of what has been approved).

    ONLY when the actual costs of development MUST be part of the decision process will we see more ownership and responsibility of the problem from developers, local officials, taxpayers and commuters.

    Anyone who believes in Capitalism… individual responsibility… and paying one’s own way.. should LIKE this! 🙂

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Here’s something worth looking at:

    “The bill also requires that, from the Commonwealth’s current share of the state sales and use tax, an amount equivalent to the revenue generated by a 0.25 percent sales and use tax on sales from the Counties of Arlington and Fairfax and the Cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Falls Church shall be dedicated for use by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), as may be provided by federal law for the payment of certain federal funds to WMATA and only at such time as the federal law is enacted. This portion of the bill is effective June 1, 2007.”

    HB 5036 Retail Sales and Use Tax; portion dedicated for transportation and creates trans. district programs.

  6. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Residents of NoVA also pay a two percent (I think) sales tax on gasoline for the benefit of WMATA.

    HB 5036 is certainly better than one that would raise the sales tax. It’s also consistent with the approaches being discussed in both Washington and Maryland.

    But what should be done is for the funds to come from the Commonwealth’s treasury as a small pay-back to NoVA for all of the money we send south. Dollars down and pennies back. Call it an investment in future income streams.

  7. Anonskeptic Avatar

    I guess that I am slow, but I do not see that the solutions proposed will do anything to alleviate the existing and backlog of past transportation (mainly road) needs. Yes, all that you talk about may help in the future, but as one VaTech econ. prof. opined lately, if you squeeze the balloon in one place (Fairfax, Loudoun, PW,, it will bulge in another (W.Va.) and those people will just clog the roads, too.

    Also, please spend some time at the GA in 2007 and view the raw power of the Homebuilders Association. If you think that they will roll over and accept impact fees without voting with their wallets, then you truly reside in a dream world.

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Anonskeptic – Keep in mind that people who don’t live in your county or city don’t have kids in your schools, use your libraries, parks, sewers, etc. Watching 7th graders be forced to eat lunch before 10 am is a strong motivator to push as much growth outside Fairfax County as possible. Perhaps, after the 2007 elections when Connolly and his colleagues are dumped, we’ll get a BoS that will address development rationally, but until then, we have a strong incentive to push development outside Fairfax County.

    Indeed, it should be interesting to watch the interplay between the Homebuilders Association and ordinary citizens. Our senators and delegates will not relish the idea.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m not convinced that homebuilders will be opposed to and/or kill impact fees and the reason why is that localities right now.. are using proffers as proxies for impact fees .. and from the builder’s standpoint – there is no rhyme or reason as to how much. In other words, not only are they different from one jurisdiction to another, but they can and do change… (arbitrarily in some builders eyes).

    The kind of uncertainty can drammatically affect the economics behind proposed developments… that require investments to just bring them to the point where they can be brought in front of the BOS for approval.

    The homebuilders did NOT opposed transportation impact fees for Stafford.. and then two years later for Spotsylvania.

    What homebuilders want is an environment where such fees (or proffers) are predictable AND are not arbitrary – i.e. have some realistic connection to actual infrastructure costs.

    Also, take note, more and more localities are working with developers to come up with CDA’s to pay for infrastructure.

    I don’t doubt the power of the development community but I also think that, in the long run, it is in the interests of the development community to work towards a collaborative framework for development rather than be subject to year to year and election to election changes that can cause big changes… that are adverse to business.

  10. As I understand it one difference between impact fees and proffers is that impact fees affect all building, even those done by right, wheras proffers apply only to re-zonings.

    I have no problem with fair and equitable impact fees. In the Spotsylvania post one builder made the comment that at least with impact fees you would understand your problem going in, as opposed to prolonged negotiations ofver proffers wherein each side starts with a position they know is unacceptable.

    But, if impact fees are proper for government to colect, then they should have to pay impact fees when they create conditions that cause a landowner to lose previously held rights.

    Impact fees may not be designed to punish behaviors, but Jim’s comment was directed to rural impact fees just as his previous post on Lloyd George’s land tax did proposed differing tax methods for rural and urban places.

    I’m not opposed to incentives either, but my experience is that I’ve had far more punishment than I’ve had incentive.

    Larry is right, if we can find a situation all can agree with, we can dampen the oscillations. I don’t see that happening, with each side adopting a winner take all, more is better position, frequently designed to squeeze the balloon someplace else.

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