The Tea Party: Dumb vs. Smart Growth

The Tea Party movement in Virginia has a new whipping boy: smart growth.

One focus is Chesterfield County, the largest suburban area in the state capital region which has been beset with the woes of overbuilding and lax oversight for decades.

That doesn’t faze a Tea Party offspring that calls itself the Virginia Campaign for Liberty. Chesterfield County is going through the process of reconsidering its comprehensive plan, perhaps to avoid past mistakes. In response, a woman named Donna Holt, who lives in the county and is executive director of the “liberty” group, says the plan could be an avenue to massive government intrusion in the form of “some very nefarious ordinances and regulations.”

Never mind that the county, which hasn’t reviewed its plan in some years, is nowhere close to passing any regulations, the point is clear. The Tea Party types, that eclectic bunch of gun nuts, Patrick Henry impersonators, no tax mavens and Obama birthers, are piling on to make sure that their individual and property rights are not violated.

Holt’s attacks show a basic lack of understanding of what’s been happening in Chesterfield, as well as other suburban and exurban counties such as Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford. The problem is not too many regulations, but too few. For years, laissez-faire mentalities took hold among planning commissions and boards of supervisors. Developers of gigantic, car-centric subdivisions got whatever they wanted. Strip mall builders likewise built at will.

Needed infrastructure and services were put in a perpetual catch-up mode. The explosive suburban growth from the 1970s until the 2007-08 financial crisis severely tested schools, classrooms, health, police and fire services. Fueled by cheap money and gravity-defying real estate assessments, huge suburban clusters sprang out of cow pastures with little rhyme or reason, other than a developer wanted something and supervisors had “growth” on their brains.

That’s what happened in Chesterfield. A Republican-controlled board allowed developers anything they wanted. They never met a subdivision plan or a mall they didn’t like. Never mind that Chesterfield is seriously imbalanced in that it doesn’t have a healthy mix of industries or commercial office space to help pay the tax bills, as Henrico County, a sister area, does.

As homes flew up, kids went to school in mobile homes until new schools could be thrown up as fast as possible. Police were underfunded, so you may have had one or two officers on duty on night shifts patrolling vast areas of the county.

It all came to a screeching halt when the subprime crisis brought the growth engine to a halt. Since then, Chesterfield has been laying off teachers and other workers as it struggled to deal with real estate assessments that have been dropping for three years.

Holt, apparently, doesn’t get it. She was quoted as saying that the comprehensive plan could be some kind of pro-government regulation trojan horse. As she points out, somewhere in Alabama, some homeowner was told he or she couldn’t grow a tomato garden because of government land use rules (The horror!)

The relevancy and veracity of that statement are hard to check. But you can check the “Virginia Campaign for Liberty” website. It is filled with low-brow pieces titled “Global Totalitarian Dictatorship Invading a Town near You with Your Permission (sic).” This rather impenetrable analysis by a man named James Simpson (credentials unlisted) rants on about the United Nations, condoms, Dr. Paul Ehrlich (“Obama’s lunatic Science Czar”) and a host of other issues. I had trouble connecting the dots.

It is too bad that the Tea Partiers have to go after smarter growth just after the financial meltdown has given us some breathing room to get things right.

Peter Galuszka

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26 responses to “The Tea Party: Dumb vs. Smart Growth”

  1. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Good to see you wade in on settlement pattern / governance issues.

    From what I have seen of Chesterfield County you are 100 percent right on all counts. But do not forget the Road to Oblivion: Route 288.

    That this perspective gets ANY traction demonstrates the rampant ignorance concerning economic, social and physical reality related to settlement patterns.

    You might mention the UN Agenda 21 connection and the plan to herd humans into “density camps” as part of a world domination conspiracy.

    Not to worry, other tin-foil hat types say the world will end on 21 May 2011.

    Jim Bacon cautions that all the anti-smarter-growth advocates are not card carrying Tea Party members. If that is the case, the Non-Believers who are bonafide Tea Party members need to make their position clear.

    Keep up the good work.


  2. Larry G Avatar

    Tea Party aside – for the moment – Smart Growth / UDAs / TND / New Urbanism /etc / et al have a serious conceptual problem in exurban commuter-centric jurisdictions where people live and shop but do not work – and instead commute via auto, usually solo auto to a distant job.

    UDAs / Smart Growth make perfect sense in places like Arlington and parts of Henrico but how much sense do they make in places like Stafford and Chesterfield where the supposed benefits of smart growth are less auto-dependent mobility?

    Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) means:

    1. – transit servable

    2. – facilities and amenities are reachable by walk, bike or transit.

    3. – work is reachable by transit or short auto trip.

    you cannot provide cost-effective transit at 4du which is what the minimum du is for Virginia's UDAs.

    You need at least 8du and EMR will say even more dense.

    UDAs are also supposed to be truly residential integrated with commercial – mixed use instead of segregated residential subdivisions and commercial shopping areas not reasonbly accessible by any means other than private auto.

    The question is – can you really build this kind of "Smart Growth" in a place like Chestefield or Stafford that people will buy homes in?

    So far – people who commute from Richmond to Chesterfield and NoVa to Stafford/Spotsylvania are NOT looking or Smart Growth/TND/mixed-use developments.


    They're living for the proverbial residential-only, cul-de-sac'ed, non-transit-served conventional subdivision.

    That's the market and that's why Stafford is providing but calling it a UDA.

    So Stafford is essentially using the UDA law to expand water/sewer to new residential subdivision development venues – not TND Smart Growth.

    I do not know about Chesterfield but I have my suspects that it's the same approach.

  3. Seems to me this is a case where early vigilance is warranted. Once an idea gets embedded inthe comprehensive plan, it is pretty much a sure path to new [nefarious] regulations. And once there, it is a twenty year process to get them repaired.

    It also seems to me that the smart grwoth advocates should have picked a different name. This kind of "spin" name for a cause, any cause, leads to immediate suspicion that what is actually happening has little to do with the name. That this is an advocacy in favor of a few, rather than a real advance for better government and fairer and more equal treatment under the law.

  4. Larry G Avatar

    Comp Plans are not zoning ordinances. Comp Plan are advisory in nature whereas zoning and land-use regs are proscriptive.

    Any property owner in Va is guaranteed by law and constitution to propose any land-use for any property no matter what the regs say and the BOS is authorized to grant exemptions if they think the pros to the county are higher than the cons.

  5. "Peter, let me tell you about a country whose government, 30 years ago, began to auction import licenses for motor vehicles. The QUANTITY of import licenses was historically in line with previous rates of importing and sales of new motor vehicles; no-one could accuse the government of "restricting supply" so as to drive prices up.

    But prices did go up, in fact there was a kind of bubble in car prices, as motor vehicle importers desperately outbid each other year after year for import licenses if they wanted to stay in business. This all ended with the collapse of all demand for the grossly overpriced new vehicles in that country, and widespread bankruptcies of motor vehicle importers.

    Exactly the same happens when urban limits are put in, even though the AMOUNT of land released is historically "adequate". The land goes up in value ten, twenty, thirty times as developers try to stay in business by securing land ahead of their competitors, and have to finance holding it for several years. (If the land released by the planners is "ten years supply", then developers will have to buy up the land and possibly hold it for ten years before being able to build if they do not want to cause an oversupply collapse in prices).

    If you could analyse the breakdown between land value and house value when these bubbles and crashes occur, you will find that ALL the movement has been in the price of the land. The price of houses, whether new built or old and depreciated, remains roughly consistent.

    When urban fringe sections are $300,000 instead of $30,000, ALL urban land is enabled to "bubble" in value by a similar factor. An inner city property that should have been $100,000 for the section and $40,000 for the old, run-down house on it, ends up $1,000,000 for the section and $40,000 for the house.

    Planners failure to grasp urban economics and all the flow on effects, which negate and even reverse the INTENDED effects of regulation, has cost us all dearly. For example, the people the urban planners wish to live closer to work at higher densities, are rendered LESS able to do so, not more able to do so; because the land, even if divided up into 3 or 4 tiny lots, is still more expensive than the whole SHOULD have been if urban limits were NOT in place.

    World Bank Economist Alain Bertaud is the outstanding authority on this. All Urban Planners should be made to read every paper he has ever written."


    ASctually, I didn't write this – notice the quotes. It was directed at a different Peter on a different website

  6. "Comp Plans are not zoning ordinances. Comp Plan are advisory in nature whereas zoning and land-use regs are proscriptive."


    Yes, but by law, zoning regs are based onthe omp plans. And any proposed variance is going to be met with cries of "It dowesn't match the Comp plan!"

    And it is going to be met with those cries REGARDLESS of whether the pros outweigh the cons, and REGARDLESS of whether there is any sense of fairness or equality in the decision.

    Thats because it costs the people making that claim NOTHING to make it. Meanwhile, the poor slob asking for the variance can EASILY spend $100,000 , just to make the request.

    I beleive the woman raising the issue is correct to point out that the comp plan revisions may lead to lnog standing changes in zoning and other housing regulations that will be difficult to change, for decades.

  7. That said, as a tea bagger, I also suspect she is raising th eissue for all the wrong reasons.

  8. "Any property owner in Va is guaranteed by law and constitution to propose any land-use for any property no matter what the regs say…."

    And that guarantee has effectively been negated by onerous regulations concerning how to make such an application.

    An appllication for a single home, requiring a zoning variance, can run up to $100,000. Just to apply, and that application will almost certainly be turned down, at least in my neighborhood.

  9. The problem I have with this is that Peter equates the county's problems (schools and budgets) with the peoples problems (how do I invest my self and my money to best effect).

    Sure, people in Loudoun pay higher taxes than people in Fauquier, but after they pay the taxes, they are still better off.

    High taxes, alone, are not an argument against anything.

  10. Larry G Avatar

    Comp Plans are pretty general and Comp Plans can also be changed.

    I've seen this happen with proposals that are not in conformity with the Comp plan and the BOS accepted the change in the comp plan but with special use provisos – as they are allowed by law and constitution to do.

    The vast, vast majority of counties in Va allow development.

    Whether it's Frederick or Loudoun or Prince William or Spotsylvania or Hanover or Henrico or Chesterfield and so Ray's "general" complain is just simply not the case in 98% of the cases where it does not cost an arm and a leg to make a proposal and it is, in fact, the case the the Comp Plan can and is changed as well as even zoning and land-use ordinances.

    It's also NOT TRUE that NoVa or Richmond or Charlottesville or Eoanoke restricts land-use that then drives people to commute to the exurban counties.

    not true.

    What drives people from the urbanized areas to the exurbs is that they want to live in a residential subdivision in a house that they can afford and land in the urban areas is so much more expensive that affordable single family residential cannot be built on it simply because the land can yield higher profits for other more intensive uses.

    Ray keeps trying to expand his Facquier experience to land-use across Va and like I said 98% of the counties are pro-development and they've got the developed properties to prove it.

  11. This is like the argument that switching to a dollar coin would save $5.5 billion – over 30 years.

    Save the government, maybe. But the governments primary job is not to cut government costs but to cut TOAL COST = Production Cost + External Cost + Government Cost.

    In the case of the dollar coin, it didn't take long for someone to figure out that the added cost in Jet fuel alone (for carting around all those dollar coins in pockets and purses, snd for redistribuing money throught th ed banks as needed) would cost tens of millions every year.

    Plus, the government incurs up front costs, so that savings does not begin right away.

    In the case of "preventing uneanted development", government might be saving money up front, only to incur enormous costs for themselves, and their citizens, down the road.

    (Besides, unwanted by whom? Somebody is building and buying all this stuff.)

  12. "Comp Plans are pretty general and Comp Plans can also be changed."


    They are pretty general, which is why the argument "Its agains the comp plan" is specious.

    However it is my understanding tha comp lans may NOT be changed except at long intervals. Sure, they can be changed, so can the constitution: just don;t hold your breath.

    In my opinion, comp plans are one of the worst ideas we ever came up with. They are mealy mouth concept statements, WIBNI lists, put together by small gorups of interested (busybody) citizens, with little advertising and less inclusivity.

    They are then enforced by well meaning but badly executed zoning regulations, many of which have long since outlived their usefullness, or economic rationale.

  13. Look, if you have a regulation that costs one citizen half their life savings, just to save every other citizen 4 cents a year, because they have more votes, I'm sorry, but there is something wrong with that.

  14. Larry, larry, Larry.

    Get real.

    It took me 18 monsths to get a building permit in Fairfax county, and that did not involve a zoning hearing.

    There may be some cases where a zoning variance permit is relatively straightforward. All I can tell you that I considered asking for one, until my surveyor/engineer gave me an estimate for $85,000, and that considered a number of obviously expensive items that he could not estimate, because the cost depended on the county.

    That was to make the application for one home. And, I would have had to meet the same requirements as anybody else: traffic study, drainage plan, soils study, septic plan, etc etc etc.

    The Check List was three pages long, and frequently, you would have to do the study, just to prove you didn't need it.

    I have to assume it would be at least as expensive and probably a lot more for someone who wanted to put up fifty homes. Or 400.

    And yet, one of the complaints in the Cheek letter I mentioned previously, was that the applicants information was inadequate.

    If the board allows construction, it is under a variance or a special use permit. No change to the comp plan is required, because as you pointed out previously, the comp plan is "only advisory".

    BOS can ignore the comp plan and allow planning to issue a variance or special use.

    Thanks a lot, for the screw job BOS. Because now, if your place burns down, they can discontinue the use. So, if you manage to talk them into a tire shop that sticks twenty feet outside the commercial district, then your tire shop is worth a fraction of the old one, because you cannot guarantee its continued existence.

    Yes, development is allowed, and yes, development does get sold. But the rules have changed so much that only the big developers can play.

    That isn't the point. The point is how much additional those regulations cost the ultimate buyer, and how much of those costs translate into tangible value.

    I'm quite certin that I could have bought and moved into a house in spotsy for a lot less money and aggravation than it cost me to build in Fairfax. And, if I tried to do the SAME EXACT THING today, the answer would be no.

    You cannot possibly, seriously believe that such situations do not cause people to move away from the central areas. Of course it does, and so do the prices and taxes. More people per acre means more interaction, less freedom and more control required.

    But, financial forces work both ways, as EMR constantly points out. As fuel prices rise, either home prices distant from jobs will fall, or the jobs will move. But they wil always be more or less in balanceA: people will make rational decisions between a bargan home in the boonies and what it costs to get to work.

  15. Larry G Avatar

    Ray – I don't doubt the problems you have cited but look around you guy.

    How much of Fairfax looks like Facquier?

    Clearly – somebody got the "permits', eh?


  16. "land in the urban areas is so much more expensive that affordable single family residential cannot be built on it simply because the land can yield higher profits for other more intensive uses."


    Complete and utter nonsense.

    I've got room her to build a half dozen $2 million dollar homes – If I can get permission and no one else does. But if everyone in my position had the same opportunity, those would suddenly be $750,000 homes.

    Same with the urban areas. the reason land is so expensive is onoly partly as you say: it is more valuable for more ntensive uses, but ONLY bucause permission for such uses is so expensive to get.

    If the doors were thrown open, THEN you would see the truth of EMRs claim: there is a lot more land in urban areas than we need.

    And, if the doors were thrown open, the market for my $2 million dollar homes would evaporate. Just like in the car import example.

  17. Larry G Avatar

    $750,000 homes are not "affordable" homes guy.

    people who commute to Spotsylvania are looking for $200-300 homes because most of them don't make enough to afford more than that.

    $200K homes are pretty scarce in a place like Fairfax and that's why people commute.

    Whether it's Nova or Richmond or Charlottesville – it's the same problem.

    If you want an "affordable single family dwelling in a residential subdivision – you have to drive.

  18. "The value of real estate depends on its permitted use, which is strictly regulated by local zoning laws. Those laws have become increasingly complex and cumbersome, and politically savvy groups opposing development abound. As a result, the navigation of the tricky and turbulent waters of local land use regulation has never required more skill and expedience."

    Hinton and Williams, attorneys at law.


    You think that is free? That it saves "the county" money?

    Have you got rocks in your head?

    Now, those 200 who show up at the meeting, does it cost THEM anything? No, they have already exercised their, similar, rights. It costs them nothing, but they accrue the benefits of higher property costs(for everyone after them) and the resultant dilution of property taxes.

  19. Larry G Avatar

    I think that has precious little to do with developing land for 200K subdivision homes in Fairfax which is the issue.

    It's a myth that zoning regs prevent the development of land in places like Fairfax where virtually every square inch of developable land ..has been developed.

    Land in NoVA is simply more valuable precisely because it IS developable and it's value as developable land far exceeds the economic ability to build subdivision homes in general and 200K subdivision homes in particular.

    The people who commute to places like Stafford and Spotsylvania simply do not earn enough to pay for the kind of housing they want – in Fairfax but that kind of housing is available if they commute.

    We grew from 15,000 to a population of 125,000 and virtually all of it is commuters who moved here from places like Fairfax in search of "affordable" single family homes in a subdivision.

  20. But WHY do they cost that much?

    There were dozens of empty lots in my Alexandria neighborhood, until the housing bubble. For one reason or another, they did did not meet minimum requirements. When the price got right, it became worth the risk and expense to apply for a variance. With all that ( new) overhead ( and lesser lots) they lost value by the bucket.

    But until those homes were built, the empty lots were raising prices in Stafford. And after they were built they raised prices even more. But only because of the extra land cost, caused by the regulations.

    What's worse, is that because of the regs, some of those houses are much uglier than necessary.

    I just priced the home I put up in 1989. I'll let you know the results.

  21. I think that has precious little to do……………


    Sometimes you really are clueless. 90% + of the land in Fauquier is off limits to development.

    You don't think that affects prices in spotsy?

  22. The land in Nova costs so much precisely because it NOT developable. Not without the 18 months of grief and expense I went to, or more.

  23. The land in Nova costs so much precisely because it NOT developable. Not without the 18 months of grief and expense I went to, or more.

  24. Larry G Avatar

    why do they cost so much? I guess there are a lot of reasons but it seems to be the same problem in most urban areas.

    The further out you go – the less expensive homes are.

    But back to the subject of this thread –

    My county – Spotsylvania and the one to our north Stafford have been "encouraged" by the State to designate UDAs in the style of mixed-use, 4du/8du and up TND traditional neighborhood development as a way to reduce "sprawl", conserve rural land, and require less expensive transportation infrastructure by building in a way such that walking, biking and transit can take the place of at least some auto trips.

    The law does REQUIRE the counties to designate a UDA (as opposed to it being voluntary as advocated by Marshall and his Tea Party supporters).

    But it's a designation only. It does not actually REQUIRE that the UDA be developed nor does it prevent other non-UDA development from occurring.

    There is some mealy mouth words to the effect that the State will prioritize transportation and other infrastructure assistance but the how and what of it is open ended.

    There is no "you do this and we'll pay you for that".

    Some counties such as Albemarle and Henrico have met the UDA requirement by merely certifying that they will ENTERTAIN 8du and higher mixed-use proposal from developers for the areas they already have or are planned to have water/sewer and they're done.

    UDAs cannot be build without water/sewer because of the 4du and up density.

    So many counties are not designating greenfield sites not already served or planned to be served by water/sewer whereas some of the counties are actually considering designating greenfield sites that have no existing infrastructure – a much more problematical path in part because if you're designating greenfield sites – there is a strong likelihood that there are not jobs there and that whatever you build will become most likely – an auto dependent commuting area – with no savings in transportation infrastructure at all and much more difficult to put mixed use commercial which may not have enough rooftops to survive.

    UDAs need to be BiG with a lot high density residential to attract commercial or the UDA needs to be adjacent to other existing high density residential to be feasible for more commercial.

    And if there are only retail commercial jobs there – then a real question as to who can afford to live in the residential unless they commute to a higher level job not co-located in close proximity.

    So the whole point of the Tea Party is to object to Richmond telling counties that they need to designate UDAs – which again – do not really require much from the counties other than to make sure their UDA(s) are big enough and dense enough to (in theory) accommodate 10 years of growth based on the previous 10 years of "growth".

    much ado about nothing in my view with the added bonus that it further promotes a huge misunderstanding as to what "smart growth" is or is not in exurban commuter communities.

  25. Larry G Avatar

    re 90% of land …

    all over Virginia Ray – how many of the other counties in Va from NOVA to Richmond to Hampton Roads to Charlottesville to Lynchburg to Roanoke operate the way that Facquier does?

  26. Larry G Avatar

    clearly from any perspective – no matter how long it takes to develop land in NoVa – the time it takes to develop it has not prevented the massive scale of development that is now in front of your eyes.

    But of course if you only look at Facquier you'll no doubt not see the other realities.

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