At a breakfast meeting after the 2003 election, members of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association set out their vision for Loudoun County.
The one-page list of "Priority Issues" they discussed over eggs at the Dulles Marriott was studded with acronyms and planning jargon. But the goal was clear: to undo rules limiting construction of the Washington region's next generation of suburbs.
Farm animals will have less space to roam as more homes are built, now that the Virginia Supreme Court has thrown out Loudoun's growth controls.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
They got what they wanted.
Since the Virginia Supreme Court decision 10 days ago tossing out Loudoun County's most stringent growth controls, both sides have been engaged in the county's latest bout of frenzied public demonstrations. A rumbling tractor, skittish sheep, hand-scrawled signs and talk of liberty, family, farming and the future of the American dream -- all have been on display around Leesburg's public square.
But the more effective organizational efforts have been quieter, largely private and, over the past five years, successfully mounted by development interests that stood to lose tens of billions of dollars in hoped-for business if county building curbs were allowed to stand. Industry representatives and their supporters filed hundreds of lawsuits and made hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to help their allies win local elections.
County officials who passed restrictive zoning laws cutting 80,000 houses from county plans "underestimated the backlash that was going to come," said Jim Duszynski, chief executive of Greenvest L.C., a Vienna-based development firm that is the county's biggest landowner and has proposed the largest development in county history. "They changed the future path and future direction of the county through politics, so that was clearly a way it could be redirected."
The victory by proponents of greater development in Loudoun in part demonstrates their organizational and financial strength. It also puts new destinations on the region's development map, opening dozens of square miles to construction of new suburbs and raising the possibility that 300 square miles more could eventually follow suit. Loudoun's experience also reflects Virginia's political history as a state where judges and legislators have often deferred to development and property rights.
Although Virginia's Supreme Court threw out the rules on a technicality, some observers argued that policy considerations almost certainly played some role.
Richmond has "kept local governments on somewhat of a short leash for a long period of time. This is only the latest event in that history," said Robert Nelson, a professor of land management at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. "It would be unlikely the Maryland Supreme Court would have ruled the same way."
The restrictions struck down by the court sharply cut the number of homes that could be built per acre on semirural land covering two-thirds of the county. The rules, passed in 2003, generally required 10 or 20 acres per home, and in some cases 50 acres per home. Those rules also kept water and sewer lines crucial for development out of an area west of Dulles International Airport.
When it became clear that eight supervisors elected in 1999 on promises to cut development were serious, development proponents took action. Executives from Greenvest joined forces with those working with some of the nation's top home-building firms, including Dallas-based Centex Corp., as well as with real estate brokers, attorneys, property owners and former county officials working in the development industry, among others.
Some formed a group called Coalition for Prosperity, and members wore green buttons reading, "I'm for prosperity." They helped fund a pro-development group called Citizens for Property Rights, which included several longtime farm families and many members who were advised by a public relations executive to wear red bandanas to public meetings.
Top land-use lawyers helped participants file more than 200 legal challenges to the growth regulations, and, on a parallel political course, individuals sympathetic to development gained control of the county's Republican Committee. A prominent land-use lawyer became the county's GOP chairman.
Development industry representatives reported making more than $460,000 in campaign contributions in a period leading up to the November 2003 election, more than seven times what they gave four years earlier.