Prince William Conservation Alliance

From East To West; Sprawl Is The Talk Of The Town

(NOTE: from the November, 2003 Prince William Community Report)

Citizens, governments, businesses and developers all have a stake in the future of Prince William County. Although no one seems to have a problem agreeing that sprawl is bad, it's a different story when it comes to agreeing on exactly what constitutes sprawl. In Prince William, as in other localities across the country, a lack of consensus on sprawl and which development patterns constitute "smart growth" is provoking a lively discussion.

There is much talk about whether or not growth is inevitable. Fortunately, statistical studies can help answer this question. Over the years the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) population projections have proven to be surprisingly accurate. These figures show that the region's population is expected to grow steadily. Where these new residents, and the region's new jobs, will locate is important to Prince William.

MWCOG statistics project that regional employment increases will keep pace with population increases. Although Prince William will see a portion of these increases, the largest numbers of new jobs and residents will continue to go to areas inside the beltway. The forecast shows that D.C. will remain the dominant employment center.

Unlimited outward expansion is a characteristic of sprawl. Northern Virginia has few natural boundaries, such as a mountain range, to physically limit developable areas. Instead, we must rely on ourselves to define limits, such as urban growth boundaries.

Ideally, stakeholders, many with competing agendas, would acknowledge the need for cooperation to ensure that localities can implement planning goals fairly and consistently. Instead, counties compare rather than cooperate in planning. Fragmented land-use controls, and fiscal disparities, among the localities encourage a competitive framework. Each locality is vying for a bigger and better piece of the pie.

The result is that the Northern Virginia region is consuming land at a significantly more rapid rate than population increases justify. When regional interactions are more competitive than cooperative, we get land use anomalies. These throw a monkey wrench into the region's capacity to manage growth. For example, when Prince William approved the Gainesville Sector Plan, the region wasn't planning for a major employment center or mega-retail destination in Gainesville. The state CIP still does not include the many transportation improvements required to support the Gainesville Sector Plan's considerable commercial and residential densities.

Without regional and state commitments for transportation funds, the new development in Gainesville just guarantees that our horrible traffic jams will be even worse during coming elections in 2005 and 2007. Expectations that the region will drop everything and replan regional infrastructure to accommodate one locality's attempt to put the cart before the horse are unrealistic.

This also causes problems locally. Serious traffic congestion in Gainesville already causes many area residents to head toward Warrenton instead of Manassas for shopping. The additional traffic congestion generated by the Gainesville Sector Plan is likely to exacerbate existing conditions and certainly won't be an asset for future efforts to attract businesses to the area.

Objective planning targets that emphasize when and where to development could help Prince William establish realistic goals. Targets that match the pace of new development with improvements to infrastructure - roads, schools, fire and rescue, green open space and active recreation facilities - create a win-win scenario for all stakeholders.

Prince William occupies a special place within the Northern Virginia region. As Prince William continues its 50-year-long pattern of rapid growth, there's never been a better time than right now to explore smart growth opportunities and inclusive stakeholder partnerships.

Prince William Conservation Alliance