Virginia’s Destiny: One Big Parking Lot by 2030?

If present trends continue, warns Trip Pollard with the Southern Environmental Law Center in a new study, Virginia’s population will reach nearly 10 million by 2030 — adding the equivalent of the entire population of Northern Virginia. More land will be developed in the next 40 years than in the previous 400, traffic congestion will get worse and degradation of the environment will accelerate.

The chief culprit is a complex set of land use and transportation policies that drive the scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development known loosely as “suburban sprawl.” In his study, “New Directions: Land Use, Transportation and Climate Change in Virginia,” Pollard goes beyond the familiar critique of sprawl and makes the link to carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.

(The SELC inexplicably links to a study on Alabama’s water agenda, so the full study is not currently available online at the moment.)

Sprawl, states the SELC press release, “leads to increased land conversion (Virginia lost almost 350,000 acres—about 180 acres a day—to development between 1992 and 1997), more driving (80 billion miles in 2005, up 33% from 1990), and greater fuel consumption (over 5 billion gallons in 2005).

Transportation is the single largest use of energy in Virginia, accounting for 43% of all energy consumed. It also accounts for over two-fifths of Virginia’s CO2 emissions and is the fastest growing source of CO2—rising 31% between 1990-2004. Sprawl not only exacerbates global warming by increasing driving, it destroys the very resources that would help ameliorate the impacts of a warming planet – forests, which retain carbon, and wetlands, which absorb flood waters.

But the study is no Jeremiad. Pollard says it’s not too late to change. His recommendations:

  • Revitalize communities and promote more compact neighborhoods and town centers that include affordable housing and transportation alternatives to solo driving
  • Provide incentives for greener building to make new and existing structures healthier, cleaner and more energy efficient
  • Protect and enhance rural and natural areas, and promote agricultural vitality
  • Increase funding for transportation choices, including transit, rail, pedestrian and bicycling paths, and improved local street networks
  • Provide incentives for more efficient, cleaner vehicles and cleaner fuels
  • Make reducing greenhouse gas pollution a priority in all energy and transportation plans and projects.

Overall, I think Pollard’s study makes an important statement. While I don’t regard Global Warming with the same alarm that others do, there is no denying that the accelerating rate of land conversion will have baleful, long-term consequences on Virginia’s environment. We cannot continue down the same path without inflicting incalculable damage upon our natural heritage.

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13 responses to “Virginia’s Destiny: One Big Parking Lot by 2030?”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    …. “More land will be developed in the next 40 years than in the previous 400,..”

    and you can bet that the demise of the Chesapeake Bay will be blamed on fallow farms in Pennsylvania… for sure.

    sorry.. could not resist.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    “leads to increased land conversion (Virginia lost almost 350,000 acres—about 180 acres a day—to development between 1992 and 1997), more driving (80 billion miles in 2005, up 33% from 1990), and greater fuel consumption (over 5 billion gallons in 2005).”

    It is an assymetric argument.

    They have posited (some) of the costs of this occurence, without recognizing any of the benefits.

    And they have not said ANYTHING about the costs (or benefits) of the proposed alternatives.

    So lets take a peek:

    “Promote more compact neighborhoods”

    Promotion costs money, usually. Promoting more compact neighborhoods to “save” lasnd fropm development is going to amount to a transfer of wealth away from what might otherwise happen. If you want to save the land for some public reason, it might be cheaper to just buy it.

    “Provide incentives for greener buildings”

    Read this as spend more public money to get other people to do what we want done, because we THINK it makes sense and will provide a payback.

    “more affordable housing”

    Who is going to pay for the affordability?

    “Protect and enhance rural and natural areas,”

    Read this as take land value away from those that own the land, and convert it to our values.

    “and promote agricultural vitality”

    As long as it doesn’t produce greenhouse gas, nitrogen, runoff, dust, smells, or fuel for autos, not to mention profits for the operator.

    “Increase funding for transportation choices,”

    Spend more public money on everything but autos, which most people use.

    “Provide incentives for more efficient, cleaner vehicles and cleaner fuels”

    OK, Take back my previous comment. But it is still more public money to be spent on something that might or might not pay back.

    “Make reducing greenhouse gas pollution a priority”

    Well let’s just pass a law against stoichiometry, and see how well that works. The only way this works is if we burn less stuff, and even that might not work. We can burn less stuff two ways, we can be more efficient, or we can do without. Being more efficient has limits, and those limits are likely to be far overrun by an increase that doubles the population. And, reducing greenhouse gas is going to be expensive.

    So, all of the things they propose to do to to “save” land wind up costing money. The land we “lost” hasn’t been lost, it was converted to other, more valuable, uses. If we prevent that in order to sequester carbon, then that loss is an additional cost of their proposals. If using the land to sequester carbon becomes valuable enough, we can convert it back, but, why should we do that, if we can get what we want at no cost?

    None of this would be so bad, if the proposed changes would really save energy, but they probably won’t.

    And there is one other thing they haven’t addressed. Let’s suppose we manage to pack all this new population into existing developed areas, doubling the density.

    Which neighborhood is going to be the first to vlounteer to go from half acre lots to quarter acre? Who is going to add ten stories to an existing ten story building? How is Metro going to double its capacity, let alone its destinations?

    What is going to happen when those people look out at Western Loudoun with 20 acre lots? SELC seems to think that all these things can be promoted and that other people will like them, but I think there will be considerable social upheaval involved.

    After all, if all this stuff is such a good idea, why does it have to be “promoted” and “incentivized”.

    And, where is the money going to come from, in a no new taxes environment.

    This is just another “to-do” list from another of the numberless agencies that want to control how our limited funds are spent. If we each gave a penny to every idea from every organization, we wouldn’t have enough left to eat.



    Those farms in Pennsylvania are far from fallow. Their climate is sufficiently differnt from ours to make a big difference in their operations. I have to compete agains hay vendors from PA, and their hay is a lot nicer than mine.

    When we eliminate enough farms, then development will be the largest polluter in the Bay, but it isn’t yet. In the meantime, my roof and my driveway are the only part of the farm that do not produce nitrogen. And forests do not sequester carbon or nitrogen all that well. Eventually they burn or rot, and that material is released. A better method is to use the foreat products to build something valuable, which will be protected for a century or more.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    the point about the farms is that there is less farmland than before because of it’s conversion to development – so there is less farmland – but the increase in nutrients is blamed on … farming.

    How can that be?

    Are the fewer farms and less total acreage being farmed in more inefficient ways than previously?

    How can there be less farms and less farmland and MORE runoff from farms at the same time we have more and more impervious surfaces from development?

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    There are more animals, even though there are less farms. Farms now stock at higher rates than previously possible. The animals themselves are bigger, because they are full of growth hormones (which also get into the water). thjey grow the animals faster and turn them over quicker, and that means more feed. The big industrial farms use big industrial amounts of fertilizer.

    The land is being used more efficiently, but that has nothing to do with the amount of waste produced.

    The impervious surfaces do not contribute to nitrogen, except to the extent that they are used to drive motor vehicles that produce NOX. But compared to farms (and other open space, even), that is a minor contributor.

    Impervious surfaces do mean that the runoff happens faster, but in new developments that is supposed to be controlled. Faster runoff means more of a shock load when the sudden rush hits the bay. mpervious surfaces contribute to toxics, like antifreeze, but development is not the (main) source of nitrogen in the Bay.

    There are, of course the blithering idiots that insist on having perfect lawns, and overfertilize and overfungicide and overherbicide. At least when the farms do it, you get beef and chicken and milk.

    But, as Peter notes, we should deal in facts. As far as I can tell the facts (right now, won’t be the same in 30 years, maybe) is that farms account for 2/3 of the nitrogen in the Bay, and the cost of stopping that is 1/3 of what it would take to cut down on runoff from developed areas.

    We don’t even have what it would cost to do that, and we sure can’t expect the farmers to pay it. So the question is where do you want to spend your money to get the best effect.

    Or is it that we just don’t want development, and this makes a handy, (if partially wrong) excuse?


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    It ain’t gonna work, folks. NoVA is just about busted into pieces from a public facilities perspective.

    Last evening, Fairfax County swore in its new Supervisors and other elected local officials, except for the school board. As I have some friends (of sorts) among the elected, I was invited and attended. It took me about one and a quarter hours to drive from McLean to central Fairfax County. I was not alone. I spoke to at least 20 people who spent an hour or more driving about ten miles or so. There were no major wrecks or other serious problems. It is not going to get any better.

    Dulles Rail won’t fix this. There aren’t enough rights of way to widen for more road capacity. Unless we split the county into a number of independent cities, EMR’s self-contained approach won’t work. People still drive to Tysons, etc.

    If NoVA is to function at the level of Manhattan, NY, it will need the same infrastructure as NYC has. We probably cannot afford to pay for rail to Dulles. How could we expect to replicate NYC’s entire subway system?

    Sooner or later, people will stop seeing NoVA as economic heaven. While Uncle Sam’s trough will keep us all alive, the high water mark of NoVA as an attractive place to live & work is likely upon us.

    It’s time to discover other parts of Virginia for economic growth. NoVA is collapsing under the weight of its growth to date.


  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Excellent post, TMT.

    The solution, as far as I can see is very simple – move more jobs closer to where people work. Unfortunately, that means out of NOVA and into other parts of Virginia.

    What we are doing now is the exact opposite of that.

    “Sooner or later, people will stop seeing NoVA as economic heaven.”

    Yup. We can’t fight the terrorists on borrowed money forever. At some point, somebody is going to have to pay the bills. That’s BAD NEWS for all the government contractors which in-turn is bad news for all of their employees.

    But, don’t worry. There might be some light at the end of the tunnel…maybe Hillary will save all of their jobs with a govn’t plan to provide health care to all of us!!

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    “move more jobs closer to where people work”


    Move more jobs closer to where people live.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Although perhaps on a slightly different level, I can relate to TMT’s angst.

    I live in a count with “only” 130,000 people but when I went to school here a few years ago (okay more than a few years) .. there were 15,000 people here.

    Main Street in Fredericksburg was literally like Main Street in “Grease”.

    We have been inundated 20 times over with “come heres” who work in NoVa and live here for their cheap “affordable” middle-income “dream home”.

    Our property taxes have more than tripled so that we can pay for the schools and like many other fast growing communities our BOS never paid much attention to the traffic consequences because that was VDOT’s “responsibility”.

    Okay… so the long and short of it is that from my own perspective.. is a lot like TMTs in that our area is not the nice, comfortable area that it used to be.

    We are overwhelmed with traffic as Rodger Provo alludes and the infrastructure costs of “upgrading” to accommodate the growth is mind boggling – on the order of a couple of billion dollars to “get it right”.

    So I decry in a similar way the loss of “place” as they say but I am a realist also.

    Real solutions are messy and expensive and solutions along the lines of “stopping growth” are, in my mind, just as silly as saying “no more businesses will be allowed”.

    Some Virginians pine away for an Adequate Public Facilities law (and I’m pretty much in that corner most of the time) but its not a panacea; we only need to look across the Potomac at home-ruled Montgomery County that DOES have much more control over development and they are struggling with very similar issues.

    So .. then we have to ask ourselves, is there really something unique with regard to Wash Metro/NoVa and growth and development that makes things truly different from other urbanizing areas in this country and I cannot come up a believable scenario…

    I don’t have any conclusions here.. other than if I haven’t spoken the truth above.. correct me.. to keep the record accurate…

  9. Danny L. Newton Avatar
    Danny L. Newton

    Sprawl is good. It lets us escape high taxes, lowers the cost of housing and in general puts more disposable income in out pockets. Sprawl lets us vote with our feet and lets us move out bank accounts out of the reach of greedy, anal retentive, nanny state do-gooders like Trip Pollard.

    Any real attack on sprawl would start with a reform of the tax system. Compression of populations makes houses cost more. Any construction involving more than one story is more expensive than a single story. Compression of populations only makes traffic worse. If you think of every home or business as a potential generator or attractor of traffic, concentrating generators or attractors only concentrates transportation demand. Any system whereby people all need to be at the same place at the same time, like school, multiplies that effect.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “sprawl” is empowered by providing commuter roads.

    If someone had to commute from Fredericksburg to NoVa via Route 1 instead of I-95 – we’d not see 1/10 of the folks seeking more “affordable” housing 50 miles from where the work.

    so… the days of “easy” sprawl are ending and we are at a crossroads with respect to what to do next.

    If we don’t add capacity to I-95, then congestion and delays will eventually get to the point that more than a few folks will conclude that the idea of buying a house in the Fredericksburg Area and commuting to a job in NoVa .. is no longer a viable option.

    Well.. guess what? Good news and bad news.

    The good news is that new lanes WILL be built.

    The bad news?

    Well.. the money for building those new lanes won’t come from RoVa. It won’t even come from NoVa. It will come from the folks who are commuting.

    TOLLs.. not only tolls but congestion priced tolls.

    So.. those who benefit from “sprawl” will have choices. They can continue to drive on more and more congested roads or they can carpool/ride multi-passenger vehicles OR they can buy their way out of congestion – what a concept!

    The salad days of “free” interstates are over.

    So, back to Tripp Pollard.

    Is he really a nanny-state “do-gooder” or is he on to something?

    At the end of the day, what folks are doing .. is trying to maximize their salary AND maximize the size of the house that they can afford – at the expense of very expensive interstate infrastructure.

    They got a “feebie” as long as there was available capacity…

    now they’re gonna have to pay for it and we’re going to find out who wants to pay and who does not.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    “If someone had to commute from Fredericksburg to NoVa via Route 1 instead of I-95 – we’d not see 1/10 of the folks seeking more “affordable” housing 50 miles from where the work.”

    And what would we see instead? Would it be less expensive? Would it pollute less? What would it have cost the residents of Stafford, had they been left to molder in the hinterland?

    I seriously doubt it. Driving more causes more pollution, but so does congestion. I don’t think we know anything about the trade offs required.


  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Once those trade offs become obvious THEN we will find out who is “gonna have to pay for it and THEN we’re going to find out who wants to pay and who does not.”


  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “I seriously doubt it.”

    You’ve got the perfect examples..

    Rt 29 and Rt 7 – right?

    On reason Warrenton and points south do not look like Fredericksburg is quite simple.. The commute is so awful that far fewer people are willing to put up with it…

    Ditto for those that live west on Route 7…


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