Editorial: Restricting Partnerships

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.


One thought on “Editorial: Restricting Partnerships

  • 2016-02-12 at 10:25 am

    I respectfully disagree. First, the restriction on residential zoning has caused housing prices to skyrocket. The land is the largest culprit in the value of a home. This causes excess mortgage payments that dwarf any additional real estate taxes. Read Thomas Sowell of Stanford to learn more about how zoning affects home prices.

    But the proffer system is opaque and open to corruption. A single developer/landowner gets to make a deal with the BOS to radically expand residential density. That system should be open to the highest bidder. The act of rezoning generates the additional value. Land that was worth much less increases in value several fold. All of this profit goes to the landowner/developer and then the BOS tries to recoup that via a proffer.

    A much better system is for the county to rezone land only AFTER it purchases that land. Then, the rezoning occurs increasing the value of the rezoned land. The county can then sell it to the highest bidder and recover 100% of the increased value of the land. We could pay for our roads, schools, and services using this model and it would be fair to all landowners/developers.

    Take for example the Riverside High School land. It was purchased for about $20M and held 120 acres. That’s roughly $166K/acre. If it were rezoned to residential, it could be sold for multiple times that amount. So if the BOS/LCSB needs 15 acres:

    1. Purchase 40 acres at a cheap price (say $150K/acre)

    2. Rezone most of it residential (say 2/3 or 25 acres)

    3. Sell it to the highest bidder reaping large profits for the county ($25M or so)

    4. Build your public facility (school) on the remaining land.

    It’s all transparent. There are no contingencies in the proffer that no citizen has ever heard of. It’s simply false to claim that proffers are either the only means for the county to offset costs and certainly not the most efficient. Note that both developers (they can’t reap as much of the profits) and the BOS (they can’t control the process as much since it will have to be transparent) would likely oppose this solution. Let’s see if they even try to discredit it or just simply ignore it.

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