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Marc Fisher

In Loudoun, The Discontented Cry 'Secession'

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page B01

The Catoctin Revolution began with a letter to the editor. Six weeks ago in the Loudoun Extra section of this newspaper, Nancy Meissner of Purcellville asked, "Would the secession of western Loudoun from the rest of the county be possible?"

Meissner is neither politician nor troublemaker. She and her family moved to western Loudoun 12 years ago because Gaithersburg was getting too congested, overrun with tightly packed rows of townhouses and long, winding queues of cars.

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In western Loudoun, she could bring up her kids in the rural setting she loved as a child. Even if the eastern part of the county made Loudoun the fastest-growing county in the nation, the west was safe because years of agitation had produced a zoning code that preserved farmland and kept developers at bay.

But the zoning rules didn't hold. Eastern Loudoun residents voted in pro-growth county supervisors, who promptly shoved aside the remaining slow-growth advocates on the board. Then, earlier this month, the Virginia Supreme Court delivered the crowning blow, tossing out Loudoun's strict limits on growth.

Now what will halt the transformation of western Loudoun, with its gravel roads and undulating hills, into a forest of McMansions and McMullets (Waterford resident Joe Keating's term for the ubiquitous townhouses with flat fronts, vinyl siding and decks hanging off the rear)?

Secession, came the cry. Last week, at Purcellville Town Hall, more than 50 rebels gathered to launch a movement.

They picked a name for the county they want state legislators to create, as soon as next year -- Catoctin, for the ridge that divides Loudoun roughly along the north-south path of Route 15.

Next, they needed a name for their group. "Catoctin Liberation Front," one enthusiastic fellow offered. "Catoctin Volunteers," someone volunteered. "Catoctin Correspondence," came another proposal, harkening to the American revolutionaries who spread the word about the popular resistance. The group settled on the CCC -- Citizens for Catoctin County.

They chose leaders -- Purcellville council member Karl Phillips and Meissner, the letter writer who told the assembled that "I break out in hives when I have to speak to a group."

And they set up committees to work up a manifesto, set boundaries, launch a petition drive, calculate the costs and benefits of separation, and lobby legislators to create Virginia's first new county in 125 years.

Can it be done? "I believe in big ideas," Phillips said. "When a lot of people get together, great things can happen. All of us remember seeing the Berlin Wall come down. We saw what happened in Ukraine this year. We have a right to have our own government. By stripping Chairman [Scott] York of his authority and disrespecting our supervisors, the current board is disenfranchising all of us."

Even if Virginia has not created new counties, it has set up 45 independent cities in the past century, a number of them smaller than Catoctin County would be.

Still, it's hard to imagine legislators in Richmond embracing a rebellion against development when so many lawmakers seem to believe developers are their primary constituents.

So is this merely a burst of outrage, an exhalation of frustration by a rural community that is destined to vanish?

Secession, after all, as Middleburg fox hunter Jeff Blue joked, "is an old Southern tradition."

Supervisor Jim Burton endorsed the movement, but noted that "even if you are not successful, you will have made such a powerful protest statement." No, people called out, this is no symbolic gesture; this is the real thing.

There is a deep historical basis for this split, said Keating, a retired government cartographer who writes on local history. "Western Loudoun and eastern Loudoun have always been two separate places. The east was part of slave society; the west was settled by Quakers and Germans from Pennsylvania."

And during the Civil War, the western piece of the county was the home of the Loudoun Rangers, a group of Union loyalists who recruited Southerners to fight for the North.

"This is an inevitable collision," Keating said. Residents of the proposed Catoctin County have a tradition of standing up against the majority to do what's right. Their task is huge; their time is now.

Next: Loudoun's farm frontier.

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