Land use politics in suburbs — reflecting on idyllic setting and community needs

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Want your cake and eat it too? In developing suburbs families desire the perfect world of a sizeable affordable home, low taxes, exemplary government services, convenient dining, great schools and decreasing traffic woes.

However, once we’ve moved to these idyllic locations, we want to be the last ones in the door – and then shut it tight. Why? Because we also want to preserve the environmental surroundings, if they haven’t been completely plowed over to provide us what we demand in terms of goods and services. Ben Kelahan, senior vice president for energy for the The Saint Consulting Group who lives in Northern Virginia, wrote this post when the Saint Report began more than a year ago. It rings true today as people ask questions about what kind of development should be encouraged in the community.

I found myself engaging in this internal debate the other day as I drove from my home in Brambleton in Northern Virginia to the gym for an early morning workout. I advise clients how to win tough land use battles, and I find that people who oppose development often, though not always, end up being some of the most active consumers of the services a project eventually provides, even while they gate their communities against further change. Developers rarely try to understand and win the hearts and minds of communities that will be impacted. Instead, they go the PR route to market benefits, not grass-roots campaigning to win community support.

The Brambleton area was once a pristine patch of dairy farms that is now THE largest residential development on the East Coast (~9,000 residential units at full build out). It was also the first community in the United States to have community-wide FIOS — the complete wireless service for phone, internet and cable television.

As I drove through a settling fog moving through some of the remaining empty fields that surround Brambleton — but are already being developed — I could not help but think, “what a shame, that’s pretty spectacular.” My next thought, however, was the reality check. That development is coming here based on my demand for it — grocery stores, eateries, yoga studios and coffee shops — I asked for it. Ironically, I also came to the conclusion that were it not approved, I might be amongst the crowd at the next public hearing waving a sign saying “No…….”

At Saint Consulting, it’s a phenomenon we find quite often on the land use politics circuit — initial, obstinate opposition to a particular development — followed by the same opponents being some of the largest users of it if and when it’s built, but then saying “no, thank you” (that’s being polite) once our needs are served and the next development application roles in to serve those in the line behind us, changing our “perfect community” as it is today.

Same goes for the debate over bringing an increase in power generation infrastructure and capacity to meet our daily dose of electricity. I would suspect that some of my neighbors support efforts by local Northern Virginia communities to prohibit the extension of overhead power lines, nuclear power plants and the like from running straight through our neighborhoods and disturbing the mountain vistas we’ve come to adore while driving out to our suburban abodes. However, similar to gas price complaints from drivers of super-sized SUVs (also prevalent in the community, including my Jeep), these homes and communities make up a significant part of the demand for power in Northern Virginia.

One of the sales pitches for the Brambleton community is its reputation as one of the most high-tech, wired communities around, servicing a labor force that expects nothing less than the ability to telecommute sitting at home on client conference calls, trading stocks online while the kids watch Noggin on the new flat screen TV. We’re power hungry, and not just in the K Street Capitol Hill sense. The power to serve more and more data centers (that in size are compared to the size of a small Wal-Mart) being built in the region and build the capacity to drive our appetite is great until a nuclear power facility, 500kw power line or 120-turbine wind farm attempts to disturb your line-of-sight or low-decibel porch sitting experience. The question then becomes a matter of conserving energy and reducing demand for increased capacity. Here we go again. We expect the best of both worlds, and worlds collide where my power needs intersect with my neighbor’s view of the tree line.

The key to balancing the opposition to new power infrastructure is clearly making folks like me understand the threat of losing the ability to power my daily world or sacrificing some of those home-based power “tools,” essentially making me change the way I do things. On my trails of land use political campaigns, comfortable status quo doesn’t bring the masses out to start or stop project applications, change does. There’s no more skillful organizer of opposition to development like the prospect of change, whether it’s Faquier County or Friendship Heights. So why not use change to get your project passed? The silent majority of us suburbanites don’t realize that the power debate taking place before our eyes could result in significant change. The large variety of power interests should appeal to us by defining the debate in terms of how our lives and communities could change. For one, forcing us back on the clogged greenways and interstates at rush hour due to blackouts, instead of surfing the web from our home office until the traffic dies down. That may not be the change we’re looking for. Until this happens, the opposition will continue owning the change message, packing local Board hearings and legislative committee rooms with people who oppose change to their daily view instead of their daily lives.

Ben Kelahan is senior vice president for energy for The Saint Consulting Group, email

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