You Got to Be Kidding Me!

UGBs Coming to Virginia?

Posted in Politics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on January 25, 2007

Vicky sent me this article on the new Transportation Reform Plan being proposed in Richmond. The bill is sponsored by Clay Athey, former mayor of working-class Front Royal and now Republican Delegate representing the town. Having seen it from both sides, Athey should know the ins and outs of transportation and land use better than most elected officials. Athey explained the plan in the Fauquier Times-Democrat yesterday; it primarily addresses transportation infrastructure (basically, roads) by moving some funding and decisionmaking from VDOT to the counties, but it also includes new land use regulating powers intended to encourage more compact development patterns. Chief among them is what Athey calls “urban development areas” or UDAs.

If that sounds familiar to urban planners, it’s because Oregon used a similar scheme–they called it Urban Growth Boundaries or UGBs-to contain sprawl beginning in the 1970s. The concept is simple. The county identifies the optimal place for most human settlement to go, and writes its comprehensive plan accordingly. Thereafter, development proposals can be approved inside the boundary, rejected outside it. UDAs have several major theoretical benefits for both government and citizens, with the main one being a much better ability to predict future transportation needs since you know where the houses and people will be.

The approach isn’t entirely new in Virginia–both Stafford and Fauquier Counties have long had “urban service boundaries”, outside of which no public water or sewer service is available. Driving from Warrenton to Manassas or western Loudoun County is an ample demonstration that the USB can be successful in containing sprawl, but there are at least two things that should be on everyone’s mind as they consider this legislation. First, as Stafford County’s planning staff made clear to Virginia Tech when we worked with them in 2005, “density” is a red flag to local residents when any new development proposal comes up. Most of these people moved from the crowded city and don’t want it to follow them into the countryside. It works like this:

What’s more, [development consultant Daniel K. Slone] says, getting projects approved with the densities needed to make New Urbanist projects work is difficult without public support. Oftentimes local residents raise concerns about the impact such projects have on roads and schools. “Whether legitimate or not, [those concerns] often drive down the densities so that the projects do not achieve the desired effect.”

Whether legitimate or not. That’s an important phrase in transportation and land use, because emotions and innacurate conventional wisdom are almost always the order of the day in this realm. Which brings me (sort of) to the other shadow hanging over the UDA idea–the fact that a A ballot initiative (Measure 37) stopped Oregon’s UGB program dead in its tracks last year. Landowners whose property lay outside the UGB argued that the state had deprived them of a part of their property by making it impossible to subdivide their land. They could only sell into the lower-priced agriculture market. Measure 37 specifies that land use regulations must come with financial compensation for landowners whose options are limited by the regulation. I’m not aware of any such movement in Virginia, but there are Measure 37-like initiatives coming down the pike in several western states. UDAs could draw similar fire if they are seen as too constricting for landowners outside the line.

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