Albemarle County is considering applying for a VDOT matching funds grant using $1 million of developer Frank Stoner’s money to leverage $1 million in state funds to build the street that will connect The Square to Hilltop Street in Parkside Village. This is a new, precedent-setting tactic for Albemarle, but one that other counties have been pursuing successfully to get road-building funds, and VDOT has signaled our local officials that they favor the project.
So it can happen. But should it? It’s doubtful that this fund, set up decades ago, was designed to incentivize private money for public roads. Rather it gave counties a way to extend what public funds they had for projects they considered so urgent they were willing to advance local money for what is typically a state responsibility, rather than wait their turn in VDOT’s funding queue. But some counties are willing to game the fund by acting as the agents of their local developers. For Albemarle, which has so far watched the money in the fund, some contributed by Albemarle citizens, be spent in other counties, joining the game means some of that money could come home.
Until now, no new road in booming Crozet has been paid for by the public. The public pays to improve and repair roads that already exist. The job of a developer is, after all, to build the roads and other infrastructure—water and sewer lines—that make the new parcels being created accessible and sellable. That’s the essential contribution of the developer. He makes his money back on the sales of lots. Is there any notion that Milestone Partners will pay back the public for its contribution to the access road once the lots are sold?
County leaders will point to the economic rewards of a new downtown Crozet, but every new road can be labeled an economic development project because it’s leading to houses or businesses that won’t otherwise exist.
Kant’s moral test, known as the categorical imperative, poses the question, “Would it work if everybody did it?” So, if everybody cheats or lies or steals, is a just society possible? If every Virginia jurisdiction were to act as brokers for its local builders to the fund, would the fund still work? Because some people do something arguably against the ethical norms and appear to profit, does that make it acceptable for everyone to do it?
Partnerships between government and private businesses are fraught with risks and, as we saw in the Bob McDonnell administration, these relationships can slip into corruption as government leaders use their offices to perform favors for special parties. One of government’s main duties in a capitalistic society is to regulate the profit incentive of business toward the general welfare. It’s hard for it to regulate circumstances in which it is an actor in the deal. It’s already compromised by its interest in the outcome.
The Gazette remains a strong supporter of the redevelopment of the Barnes property into the vital heart of town, but the county should think twice about whether it is a referee on the field or a player. If it’s a player, who is the referee?