Going backwards on Housing, Transportation & Growth

Virginia has a transportation problem. Virginia has a housing problem. Virginia needs to create more jobs. These problems are related and that’s why Virginia must better align jobs, housing and transportation. Unfortunately, the Va General Assembly is going in the wrong direction by making UDA’s voluntary.

Urban Development Areas (UDA’s) are how local governments in Virginia connect housing with jobs and transportation.  Virginia’s growth over the past couple decades has also given rise to more sprawl.  Virginians now must commute further because of a lack of affordable housing in key geographic areas, causing more traffic and transportation problems. Increased spawl has placed disproportionate cost burdens on low and moderate income Virginians.  Rising gas prices are a painful reminder of the burden of longer commutes. An article explains:

The purpose of UDAs is not only to allow the concentration of growth in certain areas (thus relieving the pressure on others) but also to guide the design of such areas to ensure they are livable and attractive environments. The legislation explicitly calls for “new urbanism and traditional-neighborhood design.”

As a organization that helps first-time home buyers, we see how housing and transportation costs are hurting low and moderate income Virginians. They are forced to live further and further away from their jobs. This in turn pours large (and rising) transportation costs into an already strained budget. There is only so much thrift you can teach someone until these economic factors overcome their ability to budget. If we want to help low and moderate income Virginians build wealth, we must make sure they can live near where they work. That is exactly what UDA’s help do. Homeowners save money on housing and transportation. Local governments save money on infrastructure for sprawl. The state government saves money on roads.

There is a bill making its way through the 2012 session of the Virginia General Assembly that makes UDA’s voluntary instead of mandatory. This means that local governments are longer being required to prevent needless sprawl. It has passed the State Senate 25 – 15 and is now headed to the House of Delegates for approval.

Many Virginians disfavor sprawl and want to preserve the character of their communities. UDAs allow local governments to guide and focus growth in specific areas, preventing needless sprawl.  More focused growth means more housing options closer to jobs and other important resources.

UDA’s would also help Virginia’s communities prepare for the Age Wave. Older Virginians will need communities that are accessible, walkable, and closer to public transportation, health care centers, and other important resources  UDA’s would create pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods with a balance of natural areas and developments  ideal for residential communities. Sprawl negatively affects communities in many ways, but it also taxes governmental resources. It imposes significant costs for local government including roads, schools, transportation and infrastructure.  Taxpayers must bear the burdens of these increased costs.

On his blog, “Bacon’s Rebellion,” Jim Bacon discusses the history of UDA’s in Virginia.  Former Delegate Clay Athey (R-Front Royal) describes how Frederick County was among the first Virginia jurisdictions to create a UDA.  The purpose of the UDA was to create cost-effective developments without the “scatteration” of projects that have created expensive sprawl in many other counties:

About 20 years ago, Frederick County was among the first Virginia jurisdictions to create an “urban development area,” or UDA, Athey says. The idea was to concentrate development in a zone where it could be cost-effectively served by water, sewer and roads. Outside the zone, land would be largely preserved for agriculture, although limited development was still possible. Channeling the growth into the UDA has restrained the scatteration of development projects and attendant ills that have bedeviled many other counties. The UDA has limited the need to extend utilities and upgrade country roads to serve patchy development in agricultural districts. Says Athey: “Frederick County is a model for what we ought to be trying to do statewide.”

There have been implementation problems with UDAs, and there is some vociferous opposition. There are many technical issues that can be thorny to work out. These are not reasons to abandon them though. Virginians are suffering from high housing costs and transportation costs. The problem has gotten so bad, that we are now cannibalizing public education to pay for roads. Virginia must stay committed to UDA’s and work through these issues because we need to get this right.

Watch a thorough presentation about UDA’s from the Va Chapter of the American Planning Association. This video is 45 minutes long, so enjoy!


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