In a recent Progressive Voice column, Larry Roberts presented the case for Yes in My Backyard (or “YIMBY”) development as a better alternative than NIMBY. However, many issues relating to future development in Arlington will not present a clear YIMBY or NIMBY choice. The best initial answer will be MIMBY (Maybe in My Backyard).
Arlington is forecasting, and our Comprehensive Plan now enables (often on a by-right basis), an estimated additional 75,400 people living here by 2040.
For analytical purposes, it is helpful to subdivide the potential for new Comprehensive Plan development into at least two broad categories: (1) by-right development and (2) development that can only occur via affirmative government action to change existing zoning.
A local government like Arlington has limited legal power to constrain plans by a private land owner to develop land according to existing zoning as provided in Arlington’s General Land Use Plan (“GLUP”). Arlington thus lacks the legal power to impose a moratorium on such development just because it might negatively impact schools, parks, or other public infrastructure. If marketplace conditions are right, this kind of development will take place in your backyard or someone else’s whether you like it or not.
What Arlington should be doing right now is to utilize the best available forecasts of population growth to estimate quantitatively where and when this development is likely to occur throughout Arlington. (Recently revised Sector Plans for Rosslyn and Crystal City exemplify plans that substantially increased authorized density under the GLUP.) Next, Arlington should use the best available financial modeling tools to estimate and make public the incremental extent and associated costs of all new public infrastructure (e.g., schools, fire stations, roads, parks) that will be required to serve the forecasted population growth.
Development that can only occur via affirmative government action
Armed with this baseline information, Arlington will have the best available database to determine the impact on the community each time Arlington is asked to take affirmative action to enable new development that exceeds applicable by-right zoning, whether that development is confined to a single site, a localized region around a site, or an entire sector. The proposed increase in density currently envisioned in the Lee Highway corridor is a good example.
Before any kind of new up-zoning is approved, Arlington should make available to the public an estimate of both (1) the incremental public infrastructure costs that would be incurred if the requested zoning change is authorized compared to the public infrastructure costs that would be incurred if the land were developed in accordance with existing zoning and (2) comparable estimates of incremental tax revenues. Loudoun County and many other jurisdictions routinely perform and publicize these project-by-project impact analyses.
If the net incremental public infrastructure costs of approving the up-zoning substantially exceed the net incremental tax revenues, Arlington could choose among a number of different options, including conditioning approval on an agreement by the private developer to pay a portion of the net incremental public infrastructure costs. If this really is not legally possible (which is dubious), more outright denials of requested zoning changes may be the only responsible option.
Arlington and its citizens need to understand the incremental cost and revenue impacts well before the County Board votes on any future up-zoning request. With that information, the community is best positioned to approve or reject discretionary development.