Sharon Bulova, the long-time chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, gave the 2019 Benjamin F. Tompkins Real Estate Best Practices Lecture last September 25 before an audience of real estate students, alumni, and industry professionals at Van Metre Hall. She is stepping down in January 2020 after serving three terms as Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and previously served as the Braddock District Supervisor from 1988-2009. After a thirty-one year career in public service, Chairman Bulova reflected on lessons learned from her role in land use decisions and shaping development projects in the most populous jurisdiction in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region.
She noted that she started her public life with a less than positive view of real estate development. She was first elected as part of a slow-growth oriented board in 1988. The decline in economic activity from slow-growth policies was exacerbated by the recession of the early 1990s. The resulting steep decline in county finances required deep and painful cuts in public services. She came to believe that development and economic growth are necessary for the county to provide public services and improve the quality of life in local neighborhoods. “The important thing is not that we grow.” said Bulova, “It is how we grow.”
As a result of her new outlook, she came around to working constructively with developers to help shape better communities and places for the county. She points to the Mosaic District which opened in 2012 in Merrifield as a prime example of what can be achieved with the collaboration of developers, the county, and the surrounding communities in the land use approval process. “I had my doubts at first that the level of density would be acceptable,” Bulova recalled. “It’s been highly successful. People are looking now for walkable neighborhoods. Mosaic is a good example of what can be done in other parts of the county.”
Bulova cautioned against not involving citizens and impacted neighborhoods in the discussion and planning of new development. “I believe that working with the community makes projects better,” said Bulova. “Never underestimate the value of community engagement.”
Bulova also stressed the importance of a stable policy environment and process for successful economic development. She wrote a succinct summary of her lessons learned about the public role in real estate development in a May 2019 article posted on her Bulova Byline newsletter: “I came to appreciate the importance of stable, dependable land use policies coupled with governance that engages with and is considerate of all stakeholders when considering change.”