Martha Polkey and Stephen Budiansky are suburban kids who fell for the rural idea. They tested themselves by renting a farm in Montgomery County, then 12 years ago moved across the Potomac to the northern reaches of Loudoun County, where they live in a log cabin, raise sheep and fight to hold back the march of the townhouses.
A thousand new units of housing have already been approved for Lucketts, their tiny village along Route 15. But if you slow down on the way up to the Point of Rocks Bridge over the Potomac, you'll find wineries, an orchard, a Christmas tree farm, an organic farm, farm markets, horse stables and Polkey's sheep farm -- all 10 minutes from Leesburg's sprawl.
In the epic battle for Loudoun County's future, the two sides are too often caricatured as hick farmers whose time has passed and suburban newbies eager to turn the countryside into one vast Sterling/Gaithersburg/Bowie.
Neither stereotype comes close to capturing the sense of balance that Loudoun had achieved in recent years.
Polkey and Budiansky are typical both of Loudoun's new agriculture and of people who believe open space helps the economy of the entire region. Polkey raises sheep on 13 acres, selling sheepskins, fleece and lamb for freezing (her customers include lamb lovers from suburban Asian, African and Arab populations). Polkey's is an extended community of people who relish being close to Washington and whose rural endeavors are designed to serve the big city. Former feds, lapsed lawyers and dot-com retirees now raise sheep, run pick-your-own fruit farms, stable horses for city dwellers.
"This is a bright spot in American agriculture," Polkey says, "people close in to urban areas supplying restaurants and farmers' markets."
On the other side of this purported cultural divide, many people who live in the developments that blossom with such spectacular fecundity from Loudoun's land are not interested in turning their new home into another Fairfax -- to the contrary, many of them escaped that reality in hopes of holding on to a little bit of country.
They thought they had found a balance in county restrictions that limited growth in the rural west while creating density in the east. But a harshly pro-development board of supervisors and a Virginia Supreme Court ruling throwing out slow-growth rules have polarized Loudoun anew.
This lurch back toward untrammeled development is a win for conservatives who work in Washington and view Loudoun both as weekend retreat and as convenient laboratory for political experiments aimed at expanding property rights while limiting individual expression. They've made Loudoun our regional battleground, whether the issue is growth or high school kids staging a play with homosexual themes.
But while the politically inclined play partisan games, many newcomers and longtime residents happily eschew the red-blue divide. Though many of the new residents are Republicans who are inclined to vote for lower taxes, they chose Loudoun expressly for open space. They see small-scale farming not as a relic but as proof that you can live simultaneously in a great metropolis and in the country.
The secession movement in Loudoun's rural west includes Democrats and Republicans, married by their desire to protect a sense of place. "People come out here for the horse farms, festivals, open space," says Budiansky. "That's what they like. They don't want it turned into what they came here to get away from."
But people are funny. Sometimes they want to live in the country without country life hitting them in the face. Polkey tells of a local farmer who brought cookies to her new neighbors, just arrived from the suburbs, only to find that neighbor a few days later chastising her for dropping some hay on the road between their properties.
Loudoun's future belongs to whoever can reach newcomers with a message that embraces such contradictions and seeks a solution that is neither wall-to-wall suburb nor a romantic fantasy of restoring a lost past. Development, it turns out, does not lower taxes but rather saddles counties with the expense of building so many schools, roads and sewer lines.
"People say you can't stop progress," Polkey says. "That's right, but it doesn't have to be ugly and it doesn't have to be the same everywhere."
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