Whenever the Prince William County Board of Supervisors considers a rezoning that includes new apartments, condominiums or single-family homes, the outcry from area residents is immediate: “Stop building more houses!”
The sentiment is understandable. In a county that has faced near constant growth (even during recessions) it’s hard to imagine more kids in our schools and more cars on our roads.
And yet, regional planners say that’s exactly what we should expect. Prince William County will continue to grow over the next 20 years (at least) and is forecast to swell about 20% from 468,000 to 569,000 people by 2040.
The growth is driven by the region’s hot economy, which regional planners say will add 413,000 jobs by 2030. That translates to a need for about 245,000 new homes for workers who will fill those jobs and their families.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the region’s planning group, is trying to marshal its member localities, including Prince William, around the goal of adding enough housing to meet that demand.
The good news, MWCOG says, is that the region is already planning for 245,000 new homes. The bad news is that number falls about 75,000 short of what is needed to keep rising housing costs from pushing more workers into the far-flung exurbs, which, as we know, only exacerbates traffic and makes commutes even more unbearable.
The Urban Institute, in a report that coincides with MWCOG’s housing initiative, puts a number on the families at risk of being priced out of their current housing if the region fails to act.
It says as many as 220,000 lower income households – those making less than $75,000 a year –could be displaced by an overheated housing market. Most – an estimated 43,000 – are likely to be forced out of Fairfax County. Next in line is Prince George’s County with 40,000 families at risk of having to move. Prince William County ranks third with 25,000 families considered most vulnerable to rising costs.
Since we know the numbers, there’s no excuse not to act.
It’s time for our county leaders – both the board of supervisors and the school board – to get serious about planning for the growth we know is imminent.
Unfortunately, plans to accelerate new school construction have been put on the backburner as the county waits for a consultant to review the school division’s growth projections. Given the work of the experts at both MWCOG and the Urban Institute, that exercise seems a waste of both time and money.
The consultant’s report is due sometime this fall. Once it confirms what we already know, the two boards must recommit to building the schools we need for the children already here (filling 184 trailers this year) as well as those we know are coming.
Is preserving the county’s rural crescent a priority? If so, the time to direct future residential growth away from the protected acres is upon us.
MWCOG is urging the region to direct needed new housing to “activity centers” with easy access to mass transit. In Prince William, where we lack Metro, that means close to train stations and commuter lots, where workers can catch a bus or carpool on the HOV lanes.
Fortunately, our county’s planning staff is already drawing up blueprints for additional growth in areas best suited to handle it. A series of “small-area plans” are underway for Gainesville, Innovation Park, Dale City, Prince William Parkway’s employment center and North Woodbridge.
Residents interested in participating that process should weigh in as soon as possible (details are on the county website), as supervisors are expected to approve the first such plan -- for North Woodbridge -- as early as next month.
A slightly different kind of planning is underway for the rural crescent. But the goal there, at least ostensibly, is to preserve the rural land -- not develop it. The mounting pressure to add more housing (in the right places) demands we get it right.