By Erich Wagner (File photo)
Affordable housing and infrastructure aid guidelines may be restricted in some localities under bills rolling through the Virginia General Assembly, which have Alexandria officials worried.
Senate Bill 549 and House Bill 770 would remove local governments’ authority to “request or accept any unreasonable proffer in connection with a rezoning or … as a condition of approval of a new residential development.” Proffers are promises by a developer or property owner to make infrastructure improvements or make contributions to other services like affordable housing.
The state Senate passed its version of the bill last week, while the House of Delegates passed a similar version February 4. Although the bills as currently drafted would not affect Alexandria — it restricts proffers in the rezoning process, while the city primarily encounters them in special use permits — city leaders fear the measure would set a dangerous precedent of the statehouse usurping City Hall.
Bernie Caton, the city’s top lobbyist in Richmond, said as originally composed, the bill would have affected one aspect of setting requirements for developments that the city does employ: construction materials.
“The way it was crafted, it also said that you could not use anything to affect the way a building is designed or the materials used,” Caton told city councilors last week. “I worked with Sen. [Dick] Saslaw (D-35) to get that out of the bill, and it has come out. … It also says the proffer must address an impact specifically attributable to the new residential development.”
City councilors said they were relieved that the proposal did not affect Alexandria’s ability to employ proffers, but said they are worried about the prospect of efforts to further erode local control over zoning issues.
“Are any local communities supporting this?” asked City Councilor Paul Smedberg.
“Some are fighting more than others, and some have just pushed to have the parts that affect them most taken out,” Caton said.
Smedberg then asked if the measures could be a sign of things to come.
“When we talked about this in the legislative subcommittee, wasn’t there concern that something more comprehensive than this, something that includes [development special use permits] and SUPs could come back next year after they got this first piece?” Smedberg said.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson echoed that concern, despite efforts by lawmakers to make the legislation more palatable for localities.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Wilson said. “While I appreciate the effort to make this less painful than it could be, we do land use, not the General Assembly. I think this sets a really, really bad precedent, and if folks down there in Richmond want to do land use, they can run to be on their city council or board of supervisors.
“As was noted, this is probably a step to something else in the future. I know when we talk to residents, we never hear that we need less authority over land use in the city.”
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) said he voted against the measure primarily because of its effect on Fairfax County, but agreed that it could mean Alexandria and other similar cities could have a similar fight on their hands in future years.
“What is clear is that Fairfax would be hurt, because it’s just taking away local control of a negotiating tool, and I remain concerned about the taking away of local governments’ negotiating tools with developers,” Ebbin said. “I am sympathetic to the developers when they talk about what it’s cost them in Prince William and Loudoun counties, but I am also sympathetic and concerned about my localities.”