Northern Virginia’s brand of conditional zoning has evolved over five decades as a counterintuitive symbiotic relationship between local governments and developers.
Most of the time, the proffer system works out well for both, as well as for the community at-large. When it doesn’t work, a judge usually settles the dispute or the parties simply agree to move on with other plans.
Periodically, downstate development disputes find their way to the halls of the General Assembly, where legislators are urged to rein in out-of-control governments making unreasonable demands. Invariably, the conditional zoning authority of Loudoun and Fairfax counties is threatened in the crossfire. Such is the case again this year.
For most Virginia legislators, the scale of development that comes before Loudoun’s government leaders is unfathomable. Here in the commonwealth’s fastest growing jurisdiction, some rezoning applications make way for subdivisions that are larger than many towns and some counties. It requires some creativity—and cooperation—to build the public infrastructure and community amenities the future residents will require. Often that involves roads the state government won’t pay for, or new schools and fire stations the local government can’t afford. Development can stop there, or the parties can find a way to share the burden.
Loudoun’s proffer system grew in large part from the failure of the state government to keep up with road construction—frequently involving off-site road construction of the type that would be limited by the legislation under debate in Richmond. You think Waxpool Road is congested today? How would it be if area developers hadn’t joined forces to widen it to four lanes? Developers and county leaders have used proffers to address other challenges as well, from Rt. 7 interchanges to parks and libraries.
The latest example of mutually favorable proffer creativity is the deal brewing that would result in construction of the long-planned campus for George Mason University in Ashburn. That’s the campus that a developer provided land for years ago, but the General Assembly has never allocated funds to get the project going—and state legislators have no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.
Is there a public benefit in allowing a landowner to increase the intensity of development on a property in exchange for building a college campus? That is a decision best left in the hands of local government leaders. They should have the authority to form those partnerships.
Can the conditional zoning process be abused? Can proffer demands add unnecessary costs to new homes? Yes, but those issues should be debated in local boardrooms, and even county courthouses if necessary. Restricting use of one of the few legislative growth management tools made available to localities in Virginia is a disservice to both current residents and those hoping to move here.