Efforts to control residential growth fail in Senate committee

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Suffolk’s hopes of putting the brakes on residential growth until adequate school facilities are in place, at least for this year, died on the floor of a Senate committee room Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate Local Government Committee voted 11-4 not to forward the School Capacity Ordinance to the full Senate. Sen. Fred Quayle of Chesapeake, committee chairman, was the bill’s patron. He submitted it at the request of the City of Suffolk. After voting to reject the bill, the committee OK’d Quayle’s motion to carry the bill over until the next session.

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Senate Bill 393 would have allowed localities such as Suffolk to delay for up to seven years the development of new subdivisions until adequate school facilities were in place to accommodate the anticipated growth in school population.

The bill was opposed by a powerful group of real estate and development interests, which argued that the measure stripped property owners of vested rights and would have a negative economic impact on localities.

Suffolk Mayor E. Dana Dickens III, who covered a lot of ground in the General Assembly Monday and Tuesday lobbying on the bill’s behalf, was the chief spokesman in support of the measure.

&uot;It makes no sense to continue building houses when your schools are full,&uot; Dickens said. &uot;This bill does not stop development, but provides a timing mechanism to coordinate school facilities with residential development.&uot;

Dickens appealed to the stated desire of lawmakers that education is their top priority.

&uot;Supporting this bill will do more for education than most anything else that will come out of the General Assembly during this time period,&uot; he said. &uot;You ladies and gentlemen hold the trump card. You can play it on the side of the children of Virginia or you can play it on the side of the people who will continue to build houses even though the schools are full.&uot;

Some committee members maintained that the bill was unnecessary and that localities already had all the tools they needed to control growth through local zoning ordinances.

Dickens noted that in the fast-growing northern part of Suffolk, there are four elementary schools with a total of just 15 available seats. Three of the schools range from 109 to 130 percent of capacity.

&uot;There are another 1,500 (residential) units in the pipeline with 300 students and I have no facilities in the pipeline,&uot; he said.

Dickens noted that Suffolk raised taxes two years ago and that last year the tax burden was up 9 percent.

Speakers from the Coalition of High Growth Communities, which Dickens chairs, the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters joined Dickens in testifying in support of the bill.

Mike Tolson, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Virginia told the committee that the notion of an adequate public facilities ordinance such as the one before the committee was &uot;fundamentally flawed.&uot;

&uot;Residential growth proceeds growth in public infrastructure,&uot; Tolson said.

He argued that the bill: Significantly reduces the supply of affordable house; drives unwanted housing to nearby communities; creates no abiding responsibility for localities to fund new schools; significantly impacts the vested rights of property owners; and causes significant financial hardship on landowners.

Other Suffolk officials attending the hearing included Scott Mills of the planning department, Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett and School Superintendent Dr. Milton Liverman.