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Loudoun Housing Limits Reversed

Va. Court Opens Door To Western Growth

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page A01

The Virginia Supreme Court yesterday threw out Loudoun County's slow-growth regulations that had blocked home building on vast swaths of open space in the nation's fastest-growing county.

The ruling on scores of challenges filed two years ago by property owners, developers and others opens the western part of the county to new growth. More than 50,000 additional houses could now be built in an area formerly closed to massive development.

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The court did not rule on the rights of property owners. Rather, it found that Loudoun officials had not given proper public notice for hearings before slashing the number of homes that could be built on 300 square miles of semirural land covering two-thirds of the county.

Jurisdictions across the region, including Southern Maryland, Montgomery County and other parts of Northern Virginia, have sought to control rapid development through zoning restrictions and other measures. Loudoun's limitations were among the broadest.

The Supreme Court did what some on the pro-development majority on Loudoun's Board of Supervisors have wanted to do since taking power last year. Supervisors who have long slammed the controls as an infringement on property rights appeared delighted with the court's ruling, and there was no indication yesterday that it would be appealed or that Loudoun officials would try to reinstate the regulations. Last night, supervisors were planning a special meeting on the decision.

"This is a victory for property rights," said Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), who argued that the rules were elitist and exclusionary. "The wrong now has been righted."

The ruling represents a forceful victory for property rights advocates and real estate interests who have waged an impassioned, and well-funded, struggle against regulations imposed in 2003 that were designed to prevent the construction of thousands more homes among the fields, small towns and scattered subdivisions of upscale homes in western Loudoun.

Those who fought the hardest against Loudoun's building restrictions said they were elated yesterday, and some said they were gathering to toast the decision.

"Localities have a great deal of freedom of movement on land use issues, but they've got to follow the rules," said John Foote, chairman of a litigation steering committee that has overseen a sprawling fight that at one point included more than 200 lawsuits. "For all of the old board's assertions that they did this very thoroughly and carefully, the Supreme Court of Virginia found simply that they did not."

The slow-growth push by supervisors on a previous board helped turn Loudoun into a closely watched test case in the national struggle over property rights and the environment. With its proximity to the nation's capital, its fastest-growing designation by the Census Bureau and tens of billions of construction dollars at stake, Loudoun's development debate has transcended the ordinary dust-ups over spreading U.S. suburbs.

A new crop of pro-growth officials took power last year after an election underwritten by unprecedented campaign contributions from the development industry. Although officials have been pushing for increased home building near Dulles International Airport, the politically charged question of what they would do about their predecessors' strict limits on growth in western Loudoun remained unanswered.

Then, yesterday, Virginia's highest court invalidated the county's toughest slow-growth rules in a 19-page opinion.

The most far-reaching change from the decision could come on the question of rural zoning in the county's west. Advocates of slowing growth changed zoning law in 2003 to require 10, 20 or 50 acres per house, depending on a property's location and whether homesites were clustered together to protect open space. For decades before that, Loudoun required three acres for the construction of every home in that part of the county.

Snow said he could accept rules requiring perhaps five or seven acres per home. "That may be a good solution for all concerned. It would help reduce density and at the same time give the property owner the opportunity to use his land."

The court's ruling focused on a legal technicality: that the county had not clearly defined in its public notices the boundaries of land to be rezoned. Current supervisors are left with several choices: to appeal the decision, to give proper notice before reinstituting the rules or to do nothing and let the restrictions disappear.

That prospect thrilled some longtime critics.

Jack Shockey, president of Citizens for Property Rights, owner of hundreds of acres in Loudoun and one of those who sued the county, said the western welcome mat is rolling back out. "You can have a pony, you can raise your children," he said. "There's a normal progression to growth. We're having more children. We're having more people. We need to plan."

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