CHARLES TOWN – County commissioners are split by a request by a developers’ group for a three-year extension of their plans for as-yet unbuilt subdivisions.
The proposal was brought to the commission by Michael Wiley, president of Jefferson County Citizens for Economic Preservation, a group started by developers, attorneys, bankers and builders with interests in home construction in the county.
The group is asking the commission to pass a resolution granting a three-year extension to the approval of construction plans for subdivisions that have yet to be constructed, and whose approvals are set to expire on July 1. The resolution would be essentially identical to SB 540, a law passed by the Senate in the last legislative session but which died in the House Judiciary Committee.
The state Legislature previously granted a two-and-a-half year extension but many proposed subdivisions remain unbuilt with the demand for housing remaining at historically low levels.
“The primary hardship is the ability to sell homes with the Great Recession still showing its effects on our industry,” said Wiley, who is also the vice president of development for The Wormald Companies which are currently developing the Beallair and Beallair West subdivisions. “Those of us that are doing land development in Jefferson County are trying to keep those projects alive and economically viable.”
Wiley said many of the developers who own dormant subdivisions are burdened with ongoing mortgage payments and other carrying costs. While proposals like bond tolling – which allows developers to withdraw their performance bonds if they post a nominal $10,000 surety – offer developers some relief, allowing approved construction plans to sunset would impose new burdens that threaten proposed subdivisions, he said.
“We’re talking probably tens of thousands of dollars. In some cases, for larger developments, it could be over $100,000,” Wiley said. “In general, you’re talking about surveying, planning and engineering consulting fees to update the plans and process them.”
The developments whose permits expire would also have to comply with newer regulations, Wiley said.
“There are always the little subtleties in not only the county’s subdivision regulations but in the agencies that also have to review this as part of the process, for example the Department of Highways, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Public Service District, and the Public Service Commission,” he said.
Commission President Patsy Noland supports the extension.
“I think, in light of the economic times that we’ve experienced, that it is not going to hurt anything to extend them for three years,” Noland said. “I think that we need to be considerate of the investment that these developers have already made in the properties that they want to develop. They play a huge role in the local community and in the economy. When people with hammers and hard hats go to work, the economy is always better.”
The proposal has met opposition from Commissioners Frances Morgan and Lyn Widmyer, who worry making such concessions to developers might have a negative impact on the county.
“These are paper subdivisions. They are subdivisions that have been approved at the preliminary level from years back,” Widmyer said. “We need to look at our existing neighborhoods and communities and strengthen them, not simply ignore them and go leap-frogging out into new subdivisions.”
“I don’t think this is the time to approve more subdivisions,” Widmyer added. “I think the future of this county is economic development, not residential development.”
Morgan worries that extending the sunset provision will expose county taxpayers to more risk.
“The way I look at it, the regulations and the ordinances are a bargain that is struck between the interests of the public and the interests of the private developer,” she said. “When you change the terms of that bargain in favor of the developer, you are in essence adding more risk for the public,” Morgan said. “We have the Public Service District and the water providers that are out there hanging because there are all these subdivisions that have been approved in the past. I mean, there are thousands of dwelling units that are in the pipeline.”
Wiley argues that citizens face greater harm if a development goes into default.
“It really doesn’t result in anything that is detrimental to the county or even the citizens in the development,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I think it helps them in the long term because there are projects that may essentially go into default if a developer can’t afford to continue under the higher costs. That could create an unfinished development. None of us want that.”
Morgan argues that postponing the sunset date on approved but unconstructed subdivisions could also interfere with the county’s compliance with the Chesapeake Bay Initiative.
“The county is developing a new stormwater ordinance that will be Chesapeake Bay compliant… It is going to be more stringent – I think it is going to require retention of the first inch of rainfall,” Morgan said. “I think the development we are having today ought to be under (the new stormwater regulations.) We ought to convert to it as quickly as possible. We shouldn’t be dragging our feet.”
Carol Goolsby, the executive director of the Eastern Panhandle Regional Planning and Development Council, Region 9, also took the position in an an email sent to several area lawmakers when they were considering SB 540 that extending the sunset provisions might interfere with compliance.
“It would be difficult to implement and enforce higher regulatory standards, a strategy identified in the Developed Lands section of the Watershed Implementation Plan, in the face of additional state-ordered extensions,” Goolsby wrote. “This may jeopardize our regions current strategy to ‘hold the line’ on new development, and could be required to perform stormwater retrofits in the future.”