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Some Loudoun Landowners Want to Save Zoning Controls

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page B01

After years doing international development work in communities from Sri Lanka to Russia, Pamela and Malcolm Baldwin moved to 28 acres outside the tiny town of Lovettsville, just a few miles from the Potomac River and Virginia's northern edge, to start a farm.

He's a retired environmental consultant and lawyer; she's a former foreign service officer who now commutes to a job at an international education organization in the District. They raise llamas, herd sheep for yarn and blankets, rent out their barn for weddings and have just planted a vineyard they hope will make them some money.

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Yesterday, the Baldwins joined other landowners outside the Loudoun County Government Center with an unusual request for a local judge: Make them defendants in a long-running legal battle over development. They want to fight a ruling by Virginia's Supreme Court that would allow them to cut up their farm into lucrative lots.

The property owners said that families who don't want to subdivide would be hit with higher taxes, if the area were zoned for higher density, and tighter rules on rural businesses.

"We're not interested in subdividing," Pamela Baldwin said, arguing that the majority on Loudoun's Board of Supervisors has made no move to restore building restrictions that the court threw out on a technicality. "It seems like the board and the developers are on the same side now, which they weren't before. . . . The problem is, nobody's arguing the other side."

In a change to recent court activity in Loudoun, where scores of landowners sued to roll back strict building limits passed in 2003, 25 property owners with about 4,000 acres in rural Loudoun filed a motion with the County Circuit Court on Friday to try to defend the development controls.

Whether the court will allow them to intervene and whether their arguments would have legal sway even if they are allowed into the fray remains uncertain. Some legal observers raised doubts on both counts.

"I've never in my career seen a motion such as this at this stage of litigation. It doesn't, unfortunately, mean that you can't do it," said John Foote, a lawyer who has led challenges to Loudoun's zoning. Foote emphasized that the decision is the judge's but said "they don't have a right to be in this litigation."

Loudoun County Attorney John R. Roberts would say only that he will discuss the recent motion with supervisors.

Some of the landowners and their attorney said they were forced into their strategy.

"The county is no longer putting up the fight that is required in order to defend the new zoning ordinance," said Philip C. Strother, an attorney based in Richmond and Delaplane for the landowners.

Building-limits opponents, who filed more than 200 lawsuits last year, have argued that the 2003 restrictions hurt property rights by reducing the number of homes that can be built per acre.

Some landowners disagree. "We would be penalized by the increase in value," said Malcolm Baldwin, who works full time on his 28 acres. Moreover, he said, suburbanization will make farming more difficult and undermine other rural business. "We don't think people will want their weddings on a hill looking out over hundreds of houses," he said.

The Supreme Court also threw out rules easing development of such businesses as bed-and-breakfasts and rural retreats.

Supervisor Jim Clem (R-Leesburg) rejected the notion that supervisors would not follow up with thoughtful land-use rules.

"I think those people have overstepped their bounds," Clem said. "If people would just relax, they might be quite pleased with the result."

Clem said he does not support the one-home-per-three-acre zoning in force before tighter rules took effect. He declined to offer an alternative, he said, until a judge rules on applying the Supreme Court's decision.

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