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How Far, How Fast, How Much?

County Broadens Debate on Future Of Dulles South

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page LZ01

Somewhere between western Loudoun County's pristine hills and fields and the carefully manicured suburban lawns of the east is a swath of long-contested land that could end up shaping the county's future.

Last week, members of the development industry, county officials, residents and others gathered at Mercer Middle School in Aldie to lobby, listen and widen a public discussion about whether the county should allow a dramatic increase in the number of homes that can be built in the area.

Laurie Root, who lives in the Stonebridge community, has her say at the meeting. (Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

At issue is whether county building restrictions should be rolled back to allow a new generation of suburbs in addition to the tens of thousands more homes allowed under existing county plans.

"We have a plan for the area right now. We have some proposals that want to make changes," Loudoun Planning Director Julie Pastor said before the community input meeting Wednesday. "The question is, do we want to make those changes? What would motivate us to make those changes?

"The key issues are going to be transportation, the environment, the need for more housing. The fundamental discussion that's going to have to happen is, do you want to extend the suburban area or not?"

Those questions are roiling the nation's fastest-growing county, where advocates of spurring development are sparring with advocates of controlling growth about the effects of such a shift.

The area, or parts of it, has alternately been called Dulles South and the "transition policy area," reflecting both the proximity of Dulles International Airport and the conflicting visions of what the area should become.

Development advocates have long seen the area south and west of the airport as a logical -- and profitable -- location for large subdivisions like the planned community of South Riding.

In the early 1990s, county officials seeking to goad Loudoun out of recession opened the area to vast development. But in 1997, a new crop of officials slashed the number of homes that could be built by the airport.

After the election of eight supervisors in 1999 on promises to slow growth, officials created what they called the transition area, which stretches from south of the airport to Leesburg. They said they hoped to create an area that was not quite rural, not quite suburban -- a transition between the two. In reality, that meant generally maintaining zoning rules allowing homes on one, three or 10 acres, depending on where they were located, and keeping water and sewer out of much of the area to keep development to a minimum.

Last year, development proponents on Loudoun's new Republican-controlled Board of Supervisors led an effort to allow water and sewer lines throughout the entire 23,000-acre area, replacing the need for wells and septic tanks.

Some GOP supervisors said they pushed for the utilities out of a concern for public health and had no plans to allow higher-density home construction. Critics said it would lead to a huge increase in development, which would benefit some of the top campaign contributors to Republicans.

Within months, development firms went public with a coordinated bid to loosen building restrictions. They submitted 21 requests for permission to change the rules governing what could be built on their land countywide, including in the transition area. The board voted to settle a lawsuit in the transition area by allowing building at a higher density than under previous rules.

The six plans that included land in the transition area were the subject of discussion at Wednesday's meeting. Those proposals affect two parts of the transition area, known as Upper Broad Run and Upper Foley.

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