Want to Stop Growth? Pass the Watkins Bill.

“Be careful what you wish for,” warns Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County board of supervisors. SB 786, which would eliminate proffers and impose uniform impact fees on new real estate development, “will shut down residential development all over the county. I will make sure it shuts down residential development in Prince William.” So reports Kipp Hanley with the Manassas Journal-Messenger.

Under the bill, Northern Virginia jurisdictions could impose impact fees of no more than $8,000 to offset the cost of improving roads and building public facilities. Although the bill would collect impact fees from by-right developers, who don’t need to file rezoning requests and consequently pay nothing, local governments would not come close to covering the costs of growth. In William County, proffers currently run around $38,000 per dwelling; Stewart has pushed to raise them to $51,000.

The bill would boomerang on the very home builders who help draft the legislation that was submitted by Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan. Supervisors in fast-growth counties would routinely deny rezoning requests — including larger, better planned, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly and transit-friendly projects. Virginia would experience an acceleration of scattered, disconnected, low-density development — sprawl on steroids. My initial, ill-considered reaction to the bill was favorable. But now that critics have surfaced with powerful arguments against it, I have to say the legislation would be a disaster.

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  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    slight correction.. isn’t it SB768?

    It certainly would strongly encourage a question not often asked with respect to development and that is from a county perspective: “How much residential development can we AFFORD”.

    and this is not an idle question because infrastructure must be financed and counties have limits on how much they can borrow without having their credit rating – listed as “junk”.

    Elected leaders will be in a straight jacket.. because the only way to increase their credit capacity and not suffer a rating downgrade is to increase taxes – and they won’t get very far doing that – before they get tossed out of office.

    Oh.. and the very same John Watkins opinion about Homestead Tax Relief?

    “Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan — a proponent of expanded tax powers for localities to pay for growth-driven services — dismissed the amendment as a “political foray” that would “disrupt the business community and business climate.”


    Now that little phrase “expanded tax powers for localities”.. is intriguing…

    I don’t see any other bills from him that mention taxes except for tax credits for sprinklers…

    Perhaps next year.. after the dust settles .. we’ll see another bill from him making Rezone approvals mandatory if they meet certain criteria (and of course that criteria also suggested by the homebuilders). 🙂

  2. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Any bill that fails to observe the 10x rule will be a disaster. The 10x rule-cost of services is dependent on density. The sweet spot is around 10 persons per acre for an auto served balanced community.

    Transit oriented development is 5 to 10 times higher.

  3. Larry Gross convinced me. This proposed legislation sucks. $5,000 or $8,000 is too low. The right number is between $35,000 and $50,000.

    So, Jim – this seems like a perfect issue for BaconsRebellion. How about a letter from BR that outlines the facts in this matter. Post it on the sute and we’ll try to get it to the elected officials. Maybe even other blogs and the print media. Larry’s deconstruction of the cost of a new school gets the BaconsRebellion Nobel Prize in Economics in my mind.

    Is it time for BaconsRebellion to stop being people of words and start being people of action?

    I think so. You write the letter and we all try to get it to our representatives and local media.

    What do you think? You ready to start throwing punches or would you rather keep throwing clever phrases?

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Well.. thank you Groveton… even if your comment might be tongue-in-cheek.
    but perhaps what this bill will cause is a more general dialog about the costs of growth.

    It certainly is an opportunity for the localities and the Smart Growth folks make their respective cases.

    I would expect some localities to come forward to essentially provide a more accurate version of what I provided – to their own representatives to convince them to offer amendments or just flat out oppose it on the floor.

    Some localities.. might actually.. secretly be looking for a good excuse to turn down residential growth anyhow so they might be secretly hoping for passage.

    The other path that localities COULD take on this is that they’ll require larger Rezones to walk/talk like a Gated Community and to have a CDA that pays for ALL the needed infrastructure either wholly within the development or a pro-rata share of infrastructure external to but serving the development – like nearby schools and/or nearby roads.

    And we’re already seen some developers propose TIF arrangements which for residential are pretty bogus because, in essence, what they do is have the new residents taxes be diverted from the county general revenues to pay for the infrastructure that they need – essentially requiring other taxpayers to pay for the services (like the operating expenses of schools) for the DURATION of the TIF which could be as long as 20 or 30 ears.

    TIFs are very popular for incentivizing redevelopment of blighted areas or to work collaboratively with a new business that has the potential to bring in new taxes but needs infrastructure up front.

    The reason I mention TIFs in this context is that to SOME extent TIFs MIGHT be appropriate for Mixed-use development IF you SEPARATE out the percentage of TIF for commercial from the residential – because residential will never ever generate more in taxes than what it consumes in services.

    and that has been the consistent view even for folks like Watkins who claim that business is how you make up the shortfall – from businesses that generate tax revenues that come from selling goods/services external to the taxing jurisdiction.

    Like.. a Kings Dominion or an AOL, etc.

  5. Anonymous Avatar


    Come on. Don’t make me don’t reading this blog.

    Don’t you know localities routinely get SUED for denying rezonings?

    Why do think the bill that would allow localities to deny rezonings based on transportation infrastructure didn’t pass in 2006 or 2007.

    Give me a break.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    8:24 – Should this bill pass, the proper approach for a local government to address a lack of adequate public facilities is to open the Comprehensive Plan and set reduced densities based on the likely deficit in affordable infrastructure. The state supreme court has made it clear that this action can be done.


  7. Anonymous Avatar

    TMT. I don’t disagree with you I think its a bad bill. I’m appalled the Senate passed it.

    All I’m saying is that it’s much harder to deny rezonings than Jim makes it sound.

    Jim doesn’t address the fact that oftentimes counties approve rezonings because they are afraid of getting sued.

    And they don’t have the authority to easily deny rezonings. Additionally, the developers count on this fact. Hence, the GA’s inaction on the issue.

    I’ll assume some commenter identity later this week so its easier to argue.

    – Opinionated Grad Student

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    For the jurisdictions willing to fully explore the various ways that they can currently, under Virginia Law, legally impose with respect to land use – they are many.

    Most rezonings, for instance, need water/sewer and localities can decide where it will be offered or not offered.

    In fact, more than a few re rezonings, are not just rezoning requests. They are also requests to extend water/sewer and as far as I know – counties are not required to do that at all.

    You can also make the availability of water/sewer not “by right” BUT by Special Use.

    our county has a defacto urban development area where the provision of water/sewer in guaranteed but we see rezoning proposals fairly frequently where developers are not only requesting a rezone outside of the designated growth area but at the same time are asking for the extension of water/sewer.

    Localities might well like the idea of having a “built-out” water/sewer area and then letting “by-right” (well/septic) residential in ones and twos WITH the impact fee be built – as a way to limit the PACE of growth.

    It will take a long time in most localities for 300 by-right homes to be built… one by one verses one 300 home subdivision.

    And in that length of time – the actual per owner property tax bite for new schools will, in effect, be spread out over many years.

    Many fast growing localities would go from several schools per year to a new school every other year – a much reduced tax burden on existing residents.

    And one can virtually guarantee that the General Assembly guys/gals who vote for this bill are going to have to explain their vote to the folks who elect them.

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Groveton, I have often wondered whether I should make the leap from journalism-style advocacy to outright grassroots organizing and/or lobbying, as you suggest in your remark of 8:48 p.m. At present, I am inclined to play three roles (1) create and dissiminate new ideas and viewpoints, (2) illuminate issues through research and reporting, and (3) create a sustainable business model for what I do, which is pretty darn fun. That third item is pretty important, and I fear that getting involved in actual organizing/lobbying might cross the line in such a way as to make it difficult to attract sponsors and advertisers.

  10. Larry:

    No tounge in cheek from me. People have batted the impact fee issue around for years. The proffers are all over the board (Farifax around $5,000, Loudoun arond $35,000). You made a clear and convincing point on the cost of new schools. Seems like something I should send to my GA representatives.


    I understand your position. In all previous cases I thought that would be your position. However, this imppact fee total seemed so factually in error I wondered if you might make an exception.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Opinionated Grad Student – You might find this factoid interesting. A friend of mine, fed up with hearing that Virginia law forced the Fairfax Supervisors to grant rezoning on pain of lawsuits, asked for a summary of land use-related lawsuits in recent years. The facts showed that Fairfax County was not sued very often and when it was, it generally prevailed.

    The fear of losing big campaign contributions appears to be much stronger than the fear of lawsuits by disappointed landowners.


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