Making Growth Pay for Itself: Prince William County

Step by step, fast-growth Virginia jurisdictions are adopting a philosophy rarely stated in its baldest terms: that new growth should fully pay its own way. But that’s where things are headed. Local governance practitioners are increasingly impatient with development proposals that require existing taxpayers to share in the cost of providing new roads, schools and public services for new development.

The latest evidence comes from Prince William County, where the planning commission rejected a rezoning petition from Wheeler’s Grove LLC and HC Land Company LC to build 1,000 new homes near Gainesville. According to the Washington Post, the developer’s offer to proffer $2.5 million towards construction of a new school was not enough: The developer did not designate any space for the school. Wrote reporter Ian Shapira:

In a county where 16 schools are expected to open or be built in the next 10 years, developers are being pressured to offer school sites with their proposals because vacant land has become so scarce.

“This is a change in direction for us. Before, in the late 1990s, we started to request monetary contributions because we wanted to use the funds to buy sites near where the demand was,” said Sean T. Connaughton (R), chairman of the Board of County Supervisors. “Now, we’re switching back to asking for school sites because the price of land has gotten so high.”

Now, if only we could just convince planners and supervisors to build schools that are integrated into the communities they serve, rather than have them fenced off and surrounded by oceans of parking lot. Wouldn’t it be nice if parents could buy houses where their kids could walk to school?

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7 responses to “Making Growth Pay for Itself: Prince William County”

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Jim – Is there any data as to the differences between Arlington and Alexandria’s costs for school bus operations (because of more urban neighborhoods) and those of other places, such as Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William? In other words, do more school kids walk to and from school in some more grid-like communities?

    A comment about proffers of land for schools. This can be a very important tool to protect the public interest. However, simply proffering land does not necessarily translate into new schools.

    Fairfax County has obtained many parcels of land for schools through the proffer process. But many are not suitable for school construction. For example, when FCPS was looking to build what is now Colvin Run Elementary School in Vienna, it looked at many donated sites in Vienna and Great Falls. However, most of those holdings were either too small for a school or unbuildable. FCPS has many unused and unusable school sites that it may be trading to the county or selling for development.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Now some communities have a walking school bus program in which groups of kids are walked to school under the supervsion of a safety monitor. That would seem to be a necessity now that many parents won’t even leave kids unsupervised at the bus stop.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Interesting question. I don’t have a direct answer but in Texas school districs are given an allotment based on the linear density of their routes. Linear density is defined as the number of students riding divided by the number of miles driven.

    Those districts with the highest density also get the highest allotments. If the Linear density is above 2.4 the allotment is $1.43 per mile. If the density is below 0.4 then the allotment is only $0.68.

    Comparing the Costs per mile and the costs per rider for six Texas districts both cost measures went up with increasing density in every case but one.

    In Austin the density is 1.307, the cost per mile is $2.99, and the cost per rider is $4.29. In Houston the density is 2.48, the CPM $3.13, and CPR is $10.82.

    El Paso drives the least number of miles, yet with a density of 2.063 it still racks up costs of $8.67 per mile and $10.26 per rider.

    They must use Mecedes Buses in El Paso.

    If higher density leads to lower costs and less driving, somebody hasn’t explained this to Houston. Even though their density is higher, they still drive almost twice as many miles per rider that the state average.

    Very strange.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    TMT, I can’t vouch for Alexandria or Arlington, but I can tell you that a fair number of kids live within walking distance of schools in the city of Richmond — and do, in fact, walk. … We’ve become such a fearful society (mothers terrified of child predators) and and an autocentric society (people would rather ride a car than walk three blocks) that not as many do walk as could walk.

  5. Kris Amundson Avatar
    Kris Amundson

    Jim Bacon is right about how parents’ fears play into the school bus issue. When I was on the School Board in Fairfax, we saw increased pressure from virtually EVERY parent to get the kids on a bus. I don’t see that easing.

  6. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    What both Jim and Delegate Amundson are saying suggests that we are unlikely to see any significant impacts on school transportation were we to see changes in land use. That makes sense to me. A combination of the “parental fear factor” and the added traffic that would result from dense building would likely offset many of the gains that could be achieved from shortening bus routes.

    It was an interesting thought though.

  7. RedBull Avatar

    Do kids ride a bus to school in NYC?

    If they don’t, how does the city ease the parent’s fear?

    Urban & suburban areas in The Commonwealth should sit down for a civics lesson from the folks in NYC to learn the ins and outs of how to deal with density properly.

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