Given the virulence of the anti-growth sentiment sweeping the
state, it was only a matter of time before one of Virginia's
counties adopted a building moratorium. In November 2006, Prince
William County was the first to take this step, and Loudoun may
Pretending that this harsh action was forced upon them by the
state government's transportation policies (or lack thereof), the
county's clever contrivance will largely serve to (1) further
enrich those of its constituents already lucky enough to own their
own homes, (2) add immeasurably to the hideous traffic problem that
burdens Northern Virginia, and (3) severely limit the economic
opportunities for families of moderate means.
Over the past decade or so, Northern Virginia's more distant
counties--Loudoun, Stafford, Prince William, Spotsylvania, and
Fauquier--have attempted to slow their growth by adopting land use
regulations that have the effect of excluding from their
communities low and moderate income households.
Of course you can't do this directly--a series of U.S. Supreme
Court decisions in the 1930s ruled that it was illegal for
communities to exclude people by income. But as country clubs
demonstrate, you can do this indirectly by raising the "membership
In the case of Virginia's counties, the implicit membership fee
is the price of a home--and by making its housing less affordable
to families of moderate incomes, a county can easily limit its new
entrants to the better-off.
In an effort to deter growth and upgrade community demographics,
in the late 1990s Virginia counties began to adopt a series of
restrictive land use regulations to limit the availability and
affordability of building lots (down zoning and limited rezonings)
and/or impose a substantial implicit tax on all new houses (called
These higher fees and artificial land shortages caused home
prices to soar, forcing families of moderate means into the rental
market, or pushing them to the distant fringe of the metropolitan
area--where lower land costs and less onerous land regulations
provide affordable housing.
Forced to move farther away from their jobs, the time they spend
on the road lengthens, and traffic congestion worsens.
Restrictions = skewed values
Data published each year by the U.S. Census Bureau reveals the
adverse impact that Prince William's extant abusive land use
practices have caused. In 2000, the median value of a home in the
county was $149,600--25 percent greater than the national
But by 2005, the census reports that the median home value in
the county rose to $391,500, 133 percent greater than the national
Reflecting the county's use of high home prices to upgrade its
demographic characteristics, over the 2000-2005 period, the median
income for households in the county rose 24 percent--from $65,960
to $81,904--while incomes nationally rose by just 10 percent.
Nonetheless, because home price escalation substantially
outpaced income growth, Prince William County homes are
unaffordable even by the distorted income standards of the
And with its new moratorium on home building, affordability will
Apologists for counter-productive land use regulations often
respond by arguing that the home price inflation is due to a
booming regional economy where demand outstrips supply, and is thus
beyond a community's control.
And while, yes, the federal government's profligate spending and
high salaries have helped juice the local economy, booming
metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas have managed
to maintain affordable housing.
Whereas median home prices in the Washington area reached
$431,900 in late 2006, median home prices in Atlanta are $176,100
and are $152,800 in Houston.
Returning to the alibis offered by Prince William County, in
fact their land use practices--as well as those of their
predecessors, and that of their colleagues in contiguous
counties--have substantially worsened the quality of transportation
services in the region.
And notwithstanding VDOT's poor performance in recent years,
local officials have collectively accomplished this failure by
prohibiting or limiting higher density (or any!) development on a
substantial portion of close-in vacant land, thereby forcing new
households of more modest means to look to the distant exurban
fringes like King George and Caroline counties (in Virginia) and
Jefferson and Berkley counties (in West Virginia) for affordable
As a consequence of this compulsory commuter diaspora, their
daily struggle to get to and from work each day clogs the roads,
wastes energy, and soils the air.
So what to do? In the center of it all is Gov. Kaine, who has
yet to advance beyond campaign promises to give counties more
control over growth. In fact, Virginia counties have tremendous
control over growth, as Prince William has demonstrated by invoking
a moratorium on it.
If such an extreme act of property rights abuse reflects limited
control, then the logical enhancement of such existing powers must
be to allow them a policy of "ungrowth" whereby existing
subdivisions are bulldozed into rubble.
While this seems an awfully harsh assessment on Mr. Kaine's
accommodation of what constitutes public encroachment upon an
individual's property rights, keep in mind that the state agencies
reporting to him--notably VDOT--were exceptionally aggressive
during the last legislative session in preserving state and local
government's right to abuse eminent domain for the benefit of big
Over the past year more than 29 states have responded to the
U.S. Supreme Court's recent anti-consumer Kelo decision by adding
further protections for their residents' property.
Virginia is not one of them.
Under the circumstances, the governor might want to reconsider
his role in this debate, and a good place to start is to remember
that he is a Democrat, and that his party has traditionally stood
for the rights of the little guy over those of the privileged
elites who have often abused their influence to enhance their
lifestyles and bank accounts.
Thanks to more than a decade of land rights abuses implemented
by local officials, Virginia has managed to achieve the ignominious
distinction of experiencing the sharpest decline in homeownership
of any state between 2001 and 2005--a period in which the nation's
homeownership rate continued to increase.
As the next legislative session unfolds, the governor must
decide whether to continue to pander to the wealthy landowners of
Fauquier and Loudoun counties, or to the ordinary people now
excluded from homeownership through abusive local land use
Voters will be watching.
Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior
Research Fellow in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy