A Loudoun County Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday that property owners in much of the county once again have the right to carve up their land into three-acre lots, a decision that implements a Virginia Supreme Court ruling from last month and deepens a long-running debate over housing, agriculture and the environment.
The ruling means that property owners in the county's west who want to subdivide their land can do so, resulting in sharply higher land values for some because they are allowed to build more houses. But landowners who oppose additional construction say the ruling will harm rural businesses and spur a land-hungry brand of development that mars scenic vistas.
A previous county board passed strict limits in 2003 that generally required 10, 20 or 50 acres to build a home in a 300-square-mile area of the county. The Supreme Court threw those rules out on a technicality March 3.
Yesterday, the members of the current board, some of whom have been sharply critical of the growth-control efforts of their predecessors, reacted with an unusual and controversial offer. Supervisors voted to allow landowners who supported the tighter 2003 construction limits to voluntarily have them applied to their properties. That would restrict residential development. But the 2003 rules also eased the development of such things as rural retreats and other businesses, and such uses would be allowed under the offer.
"If this is what the landowners want, then they should be able to have that option," said Supervisor Mick Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run).
"The 'opt-in' solution offers a referendum by the people," Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles) said.
But Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) said he opposed the idea because it represented a tacit admission that the board was giving up on the idea of restoring the thrown-out building limits. He said the voluntary option dodged the key questions facing the county.
"One of the purposes of zoning is to protect you against decisions your neighbors make [affecting] your property and your quality of life," Burton said.
The supervisors also set up meetings over the next two months to hash out zoning rules.
It remained unclear yesterday, after their initial exchanges, what they have in mind. Three supervisors who had drafted the discarded rules have asked for their reenactment. But some Republicans, who control the board, called for an unspecified compromise that would be less restrictive. Some called for a dramatic reduction in the role of government in regulating land use.
"We have to get out of government regulating people's rights," Snow said.
On Friday, Judge Thomas D. Horne indicated that he was considering ruling that the area had been left with no zoning by the Supreme Court. That possibility surprised and concerned attorneys for the county and some property owners opposed to the rules.
But Horne said yesterday that because Loudoun officials failed to properly advertise the rules before they were passed, it is as if those rules had never existed.
Jack Shockey, president of Citizens for Property Rights, a group of landowners, builders, developers and others who opposed the 2003 limits, said Horne's ruling is what his members had been fighting for and what he expected after the Virginia Supreme Court decision.
"We have no interest in compromising with anybody. In case nobody's checked this out, we won," Shockey said. He encouraged landowners to subject themselves to the 2003 rules if that's what they want. "The rest of us, we kind of like a house on three acres. . . . It's a great victory for the landowners."
But Malcolm Baldwin, who supported the tighter 2003 zoning and was part of a group of landowners who last week successfully asked Horne to let them intervene in the case, said the voluntary zoning idea would not work.
"That's really an absurd remedy to this problem. There aren't any of us who own enough property to create his own rural economy," Baldwin said. "Three-acre zoning [creates] a liability for Loudoun taxpayers, and the sellers will pass that on without responsibility for their impact."