More Vapidity from the WaPo Editorial Page

The Washington Post editorial writers never cease to amaze. There they are, pontificating for one of the most powerful newspapers in the world, and they can do no better than spout vapid rhetoric on two of the most critical issues — transportation and housing — that affect the prosperity of the New Urban Region they live in.

The latest assault on the intelligence of its readers appears in an editorial this morning urging the Loudoun County board of supervisors to turn down a “rezoning request” (actually, a change to the comprehensive plan) that would allow construction of 28,000 more houses in the South Dulles section of the county. The Post cites a “study” (actually a preliminary analysis) by the Virginia Department of Transportation concluding that those 28,000 homes would generate 300,000 vehicle trips per day, creating bumper-to-bumper driving conditions across much of Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties.

Overlooked in the Post’s verbal foray across the Potomac is the incidental matter that, according to Washington Council of Governments forecasts, Loudoun County is expected to add 110,000 households by the year 2030. If some of those households don’t wind up in South Dulles, where will they go? The Post doesn’t ask that question, settling for the platitude that “Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors should zone intelligently.” Uh… thanks. That was helpful.

Instead of suggesting principles to guide the board in its zoning decisions, the Post reverts to its default position: Spend more money on roads.

The state needs to get serious about transportation. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has tried to do just that and has been stymied so far by the Republican General Assembly. The latest study is one more piece of evidence in favor of a special legislative session to cope with the worsening transportation problems in the region and the state.

Ah, yes, it’s the Virginia legislature’s fault! This non-sequitor fails to address the issue of where the growth should occur.

As it so happens, I had the opportunity yesterday to visit fellow blogger/columnist Ed Risse at his home in Warrenton, where we discussed this very issue. He and I sat in his office and pored over detailed maps of the area around Dulles Airport that he had prepared several years ago. As Ed suggested, fundamental issues need to be addressed:

  1. Loudoun has three concentrations of growth: Leesburg, Ashburn and Sterling, and an emerging cluster in South Riding. Each of these clusters still has significant acreage yet to be developed. If the Rail-to-Dulles Metro extension is ever built, the possibility also exists to build up as well as out, creating even more untapped capacity. The first strategic question that Loudoun needs to ask is this: Should it focus growth in these existing clusters, with the aim of building balanced, sustainable communities? Or should it spread the growth around?
  2. If the growth doesn’t go in those clusters, where does it go? Does Loudoun want to create a new cluster in “South Dulles”? If not, then where? Under current zoning, the South Dulles area would allow 5,000 houses by right. What would be the traffic impact of 5,000 houses in scattered, disconnected, low-density development? And where in Northern Virginia would the other 23,000 houses go?

I’m agnostic on whether or not South Dulles should be developed in the manner that Greenvest, Toll Brothers and other major developers would like. But I do find that the editorial sallies of the Washington Post — which boil all development issues down to “tax increases for roads= good” and “Virginia legislature=bad” to be numbingly uninformed and unhelpful. When you think about the vast resources the Post has at its disposal, its punditry on issues of local import is disgraceful.

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12 responses to “More Vapidity from the WaPo Editorial Page”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Waht about Middleburg as a growth center?

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Another thing that I find amazing about the Post is how it waives its arms furiously against campaign contributions that it links to “special deals,” yet the Post totally ignores the large amounts of campaign contributions received by Tim Kaine from large Tysons Corner landowners and their employees who stand to make huge windfalls should Metrorail be extended. The selective moral standards of Washington’s largest newspaper become more and more visible over time.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    I wonder where the editor lives.

  4. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    In an attempt to make the story a little more clear for those who are not familiar with the last 20 years of Loudoun County’s on-again-off-again relationship with “growth,” and to focus on the stupidity of the WaPo editorial policy, Jim left out a few details.

    First, Loudoun needs to have a plan for the future that does not include a fantasy / non-functional area called “the transition area” with 5,000 urban dwellings scattered across the Countryside.

    In the last 13,000 years of ever more pervasive urban agglomeration, the idea of a “transition area” has never worked.

    Until recent times those who lived outside the Clear Edge (the wall) were pillaged by the barbarians, crusaders or folks that saluted a different flag on the way to town. The Oxford English Dictionary has a word for those who lived outside the wall and were not trusted to be inside in the event of an attack. They were called “suburban.”

    “Modern” technology and the policies of open land exploitation first clearly articulated by President Andrew Jackson have facilitated scatteration of urban land uses across the Countryside. This settlement pattern is now grossly subsidized in a failed attempt to revive and/or compensate for an agrarian lifestyle that 95 percent of the population has abandoned for urban economic and social alternatives.

    Deciding on a desirable, functional and transportable future settlement patterns and establishing a Clear Edge between the Urbanside and the Countryside would move Loudoun County into a position from which to establish a sustainable policy on “growth.”

    Where will all those 110,000 new families go in not in Loudoun? As we point out, there is plenty of room for them at minimum density inside the logical location for the Clear Edge if the already urbanized land is redeveloped at minimum sustainable densities – especially in the shared-vehicle station areas. See “Five Critical Realities the Shape the Future” at

    There is one other point about these 110,000 households by 2030: This is a “cooperative” distribution of projected Subregional total household growth. Over the past 40 years these Subregional projections have been quite accurate because they are frequently revised to accommodate factors like workforce participation and the hopes and fears of member jurisdictions.

    There are 110,000 households projected for Loudoun County because the planners work for and fail to reflect the views of the current pro-growth / property rights board at their peril. The other big reason is that the inner jurisdictions where the jobs are now and will be in the future and where the households should be say they do not want the households, claiming to be “all built out.”

    If mobility and access continues to deteriorate and gas prices continue to rise there will be far fewer households in the Subregion and in Loudoun County in 2010, 2020 and 2030.

    Middleburg as a “growth center?” Absolutely! Middleburg should be a growth center – and to some extent it already is. Within the clear edge around Middleburg there should be a balance of Jobs / Housing / Services / Recreation / Amenity to fulfill Middleburg’s urban support function for the Countryside that is Greater Middleburg. The same is true for Greater Warrenton and Greater Culpeper. As an aside the citizens of Greater Middleburg are already doing more on a per capita basis to provide affordable and accessible housing for those on the lower end of the economic food chain than is the case for the Beta Communities (and the municipal jurisdictions) inside the Clear Edge around the Core of the National Capital Subregion.

    For Middleburg, Berryville, Marshal, Warrenton, Remington, Culpeper, et. al. to be functional urban enclaves serving and supporting the surrounding Countryside, there must be a balance of Job / Housing / Services / Recreation / Amenity within the Clear Edge around the Core of the National Capital Subregion. If the Jobs are in the Core, then the Housing and all the other components of urban life – except for extensive recreation and food production – need to be there. That is the only way there will be mobility and access or affordable and accessible housing in the National Capital Subregion. EOD.


  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    The key phrase here is “If the jobs are in the core.”

    It is clear that they are not and becoming less so every day.

    While it is true that only a few percent live in truly rural areas, the idea that 95% choose to live in urban areas is nonsense. Where they choose to live is near urban areas and not in them.

    Even if it is true that there is enough space to pack people in cubes around the rail stations, that isn’t a sufficient reason to require through planning laws that people actully live there.

  6. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    Umm, why do these endless discussions never include any commentary on why we in NOVA (or anywhere else in the US for that matter) want all these new people? Why is all this increase in population density beneficial?

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, you said, “That isn’t a sufficient reason to require through planning laws that people actually live there.”

    Whose views are you criticizing here? I don’t know of anyone who advocates requiring anyone to live anywhere or in any particular settlement pattern.

    Tobias: I can understand your sentiments to some degree. But what solution to overcrowding would you recommend that we aren’t considering? Prohibit people outright from moving to NoVa? The freedom of Americans to move to new communities is one we all take for granted.

  8. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    I was riding my anti-immigration hobby horse… my point is that a significant number of the people moving into DC metro area are not Americans – they are immigrants, legal and illegal. According to US Census data, Virginia gained 891,000 new residents between 1990-2000. 258,000 were immigrants (29%).

    That’s a pretty big number and I wonder if developers and real estate investors like Greenvest aren’t behind the scenes pushing for more immigrants to keep the house building going…

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Sorry, Tobias, I mistook you for one of those people who believe in pulling up the drawbridge — after they’ve already moved into a community. That’s a legitimate point about the immigrants. Personaly, I don’t have a problem with immigrants as long as they’re here legally.

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Don’t take it personally, Jim. I think I understand your position. The fact reamains that I know of one family that is not living where they would have chosen to exactly because the landowner was forbidden, by a new law, to sell property that he could have legally disposed of only a few weeks earlier. Requiring someone to live in one place and forbidding them to live someplace else amount to the same thing, in my opinion.

    When I hear someone say somthing like “We have to stop all this growth” or “…Loudoun needs to have a plan for the future that does not include a fantasy / non-functional area called “the transition area” with 5,000 urban dwellings….” that sounds like a plan that is going to have to be enforced by law. The result is going to be a transfer of wealth without compensation, and people living where they don’t want to.

    As to why we want all this growth, well, we should have thought of that a lot sooner. Those people have all happened and they are going to live somewhere.

    Some of them will choose to live near the “shared vehicle stations” and some won’t, unless they are forced to by “the plan”. Eventually, some people who already live near the “shared vehicle stations” will decide they have had enough growth and want to move. But if Ed’s “plan” is in place along with the other 11,000 antigrowth plans that are already in place across the nation, then where will they move to?

    Ed says …”there is plenty of room for them at minimum density inside the….. Clear Edge if the already urbanized land is redeveloped at minimum sustainable densities….” That is a remarkable piece of double speak, even for Ed. The way I hear it is that the urban areas people are already trying to escape aren’t nearly dense enough to be “sustainable”.

    But again, the key word is “if”. It won’t be redeveloped at higher densities for any number of reasons, not the least of which is insufficient capital. Add to that the fact that the people already living there will ask the question posed above: why do we want any more growth? Since there are more of them than live in the countryside, the political weight will eventually fall in their favor.

    The people who already own that land are probably mortgaged to the hilt at the densities they have. There is insufficient incentive to tear down an existing profit making place and invest more money that you don’t have in such a way that there is no possible payback for five or ten years, even if it eventually results in higher cash flow.

    It won’t be redeveloped at higher densities unless there is a sufficient market for people willing to pay the higher prices and higher taxes that such density always requires.

    And what creates that market? It is the pressure that results from enough people who are unwilling to drive 40 miles to get to work. But if those scattered houses across the countryside don’t exist, then that pressure doesn’t exist because you can go a mile outside the clear edge and have a mile of breathing room all to yourself.

    So, the way that urban property (eventually) gets redeveloped is when someone gets fed up with it, or dies, or has a better opportunity, and sells to someone with more money. That is exactly the same way rural property gets redeveloped.

    Even if the new place will accomodate more people, it will be more expensive than what was there before, therefore, the previous owner probably can’t even buy a piece of what he previously owned. He is going to have to go someplace else. Even Ed lived in town and moved out and then moved out again.

    Ed is right, there is plenty of room: at a certain price. That price can only be sustained as long as the other opportunities are less attractive. Ed is one of those who found an opportunity more to his liking. One thing that makes the other alternatives less attractive is a long commute, which Ed does not have, so he can justify his SUV. Another thing that makes other opportunities less atractive, and even impossible, is the prospect that you might have to break the law to avail yourself of it.

    So, unless the clear edge is created as a matter of law it not only won’t exist, but if it does it will be counterproductive to Ed’s idea. After all, we have had 13,000 yers of ever more pervasive urban agglomeration, and the thing that is most pervasive about it is that it requires more space.

    In Sunday’s Post was a front page story about the record proffers and other requirements an developer agreed to in order to build in Warrenton. In the discussion the comment was made that the only people not at the table were the people who would be forced to live someplace else as a result of the astronomical prices, just like the family I mentioned in the first paragraph.

    Here is a case where the developer is going to be required to use only 25% of his land, with the rest held in reserve, forever. He will pay a record cash proffer of $74,000 per home, and he is limited in the number of homes he can build even if he is willing to pay. He will repair the sewer system that the rest of the community has let fall into disrepair as a result of not paying enough taxes to fix it. He will buid the homes to look the way the board wants them to look, and in spite of that, he will build them behind a berm or ridgeline so the community won’t have to see them and they can continue to see “their viewscape”. And, after all of that, he will be required to sell the homes only to a limited market of childless people over 55 years old.

    All of this negotiation is going on with adeveloper who doesn’t even own the land, yet. The landowner, who has done much for the town in the past, is a hapless bystander in all this.

    Does that sound even remotely like a free market? You don’t have to look very far to find someone who is promoting and enforcing polices that amount to requiring someone to do what they want done instead of what the person doing the work wants done, let alone what the owner wnats done.

    As long as we continue to promote that kind of nonsense, all we will get is a guarantee that each of us has a lesser chance of getting what we want, when the time comes.

  11. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Ray – I support a free market over government decision-making, but there are lots of regulations that affect all types of businesses and not just real estate businesses.

    For example, I have a good client in California that wants to expand its business by offering some new and enhanced services and features. However, if it does so, the new services would trigger some regulation. The regulations are not unreasonable and burdensome, but they are regulations just the same. I’m working with my client to assist its compliance with the regulations in a cost-effective manner. But the bottom line for my client is that entering a new line of business brings regulation that increases costs. Presumably, the new revenues from the sale of the new services and features would more than outweigh the added costs for regulatory compliance.

    The alternatives are: 1) not to enter the new line of business; or 2) to enter without complying with the rules and hope nothing heads south. Obviously, I cannot counsel my client to take option 2, but some businesses do.

    My point is not to praise regulation, but merely to argue that many types of businesses face regulation because society has rightly or wrongly determined that some government intervention in the market is necessary to protect the public health, welfare or safety. Yet, I would still argue that we have a largely free market in this country. My client can choose to enter or exit markets; can choose which products and services to offer; etc.

    I don’t see why real estate is or should be different. Now, if you want to argue that a specific regulation or requirement is unreasonable, that’s something else.

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    In Loudoun either a bunch of land will be developed or it won’t. In the case I mentioned it was legal to sell the land one day, and the next,it wasn’t. The reason given was simply that people were taking advantage of the law, which was originally introduced as an inducement to accept other restrictive rules. In effect, the governement reneged on its own promises made 30years ago.

    30 years ago in Fauquier a “by right” lot was three acres. Now, no one can tell you what a “by right” lot is, because it depends on how much property was in one lot 30 years ago,and it depends on what other people may have done or not done since then. If you had a 300 acre lot in 1986, you would have today fewer “by-rights” than you would have if you had two smaller lots of equal total size in 1986. It is impossible to tell from the rules, what you can and cannot do.

    No one can say with authority that the result of one case in Loudoun is better or worse for the public good than the other. You can make a bunch of arguments by pointing to little pieces of the public good, like saying more traffic deaths occur in the countryside. But taken as a whole, we just can’t say very much one way or another, and anyway, the standards are constantly changing. The systemwide public good with gas a $5.00 a gallon is different from when it is $1.00 a gallon.

    Thirty or fifty years ago Loudoun and Fauquier had roughly the same population. Take the total property value of each county and divide it by it’s present population and you find out the difference is more than a million dollars for every single previous resident. Even dividng the present wealth among the greater number of new residents Loudoun county is still better off, if that is the only measure you use. It is just as Ed has said so many times, denser places are worth more.

    How do you increase the general wealth more, by making a few places a lot more dense or a lot of places (and therefore more owners) a little more dense?

    Mostly, regulations are put in place, putatively, for public safety and health. But no one is claiming that land use regulations have anything to do with that, except with regard to environmental issues, and that is a case of nonmarket forces trumping market forces, presumably without cost. It is all about politics and economic gain, and in the case of Loudoun, of flip-flopping politics and economic gain.

    So the issue here is just as much why shouldn’t we expect that regulations change and get weaker just as much as we might expect them to change and get stronger? Why shouldn’t we at least expect to be able to understand them with out needing a lawyer, historian, and surveyor? Notice that it is the change in regulations that has caused the problems. As long as the regulations were reasonable, you might not like the end result, but you had what you had and everyone was in the same boat. You might not like what your neighbor built, but you recognized that your right to build was dependent on his.

    Ed claims that the “settlement pattern is now grossly subsidized in a failed attempt to revive and/or compensate for an agrarian lifestyle that 95 percent of the population has abandoned for urban economic and social alternatives.” But I would point out that, more and more, the city is subsidizing itself by expropriating without compensation features and even cash from the rural areas that it desperately needs to support its own wasteful and expensive habits. One way that is happening is by urban residents making false or uncompensated environmental and social claims against their rural neighbors. This can be clearly seen in the case of Oregon where the votes for and against land use rules have been right along rural/urban splits for years.

    Even I am not in favor of no rules, but what is going on in Warrenton is outrageous. The whole town will get a fabulous new rec center and pool that they are unwilling topay for, and they will get it at the expense of a bunch of old geezers who can afford $850,000 homes in the countryside and don’t have children to send to the rec center anyway. That rec center and pool will also be paid for by all the people who were forced out of the development, and no doubt they will wind up in Fairfax where they will demand the TMT and others pony up more money for pools and schools.

    Jim is right, we need less regulation, not more. that is not the same as no regulation. But, we need to accept the economic facts for what they are and plan for the predictable results, and not gin up a bunch of wishful thinking about how we can have perfect life if only we control everything.

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