Zoning Law Challenger Provokes Ire and Awe

"I have not found an adequate . . . justification for telling anybody they can't be the next person in," John Foote says. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Back when John Foote was a county attorney crafting land use laws, and not an attorney suing counties to get them thrown out, the Birmingham-born son of a Sears salesman had an expansive view of his staff meetings.

There was the trip to the movie theater at Manassas Mall to see Kevin Costner and Danny Glover wearing chaps in "Silverado." There were escapes to see the Potomac Cannons. There was always Foote's trusty Trivial Pursuit box, or another of his favorite mind games: "What would you do if you had $100 million?"

But one outing Foote organized when he was Prince William County's attorney in the 1980s outshone the rest. When it came time for one of his deputies, Sharon E. Pandak, to enter the Supreme Court bar -- something he could have arranged from the office -- he insisted on a pilgrimage to hear oral arguments and on a poignant detour to honor an abolitionist hero later dubbed "the Great Dissenter."

"We went to Arlington cemetery so he could lay flowers on the grave of Oliver Wendell Holmes" Jr., Pandak said.

That disarming mix of reverence and irreverence has made Foote among the most influential -- and powerful -- Northern Virginians during a time of unprecedented growth. He has never held elected office and he's never built a house, but his colleagues, friends and even those he's vanquished in court call the former Vietnam War infantry officer one of the shrewdest, most effective advocates for landowners and developers in Virginia.

He has elicited the ire and awe of those in and outside of government, most recently after he helped lead one of the broadest legal challenges to a local jurisdiction in state history. His strategy prompted Virginia's Supreme Court in March to throw out strict growth controls Loudoun County passed in 2003.

"John is the guru of land use lawyers," said Clark Leming, a Stafford County lawyer who worked with Foote on a Spotsylvania case that set the precedent that undermined the Loudoun law. He "has a style and a rapport with the justices that I think is unequaled. When John talks, I think they listen."

For Foote, a self-described obsessive bicyclist who quotes Shakespeare and Mark Twain in his legal briefs, the latest victory is one stop in an intellectual struggle to bring what he calls fairness and perspective to the seemingly timeless -- and potentially lucrative -- suburban debate over how and where Americans should live.

"I'm not a rabid property rights advocate. Having been a public lawyer, I understand the public role and what its job is," Foote said. But individual rights can get crushed in the high-decibel political machinery that grinds out laws governing land development, Foote said. He demurs on what should be built in the wake of his legal victories.

"That's sort of not my job, if you know what I mean," Foote said. "Jurisdictions will grow in their own way. Where I come down on that is, I have not found an adequate, ethical justification for telling anybody they can't be the next person in. That doesn't mean that every inch of every jurisdiction is developed, but it does mean that all jurisdictions" have to take a fair share.

Foote developed a strategy that proved remarkably efficient in eliminating regulations hashed out over three years in Loudoun. The key was the advertisement describing proposed zoning changes, which officials are required to publish in a newspaper. Although Loudoun mailed notices to nearly every landowner, the Supreme Court deemed the advertisement misleading -- the ad said the changes would affect "the western portion of the county," when they actually affected the western two-thirds of the county -- and knocked down the regulations on the technicality.

Opponents paint Foote as a gun-slinging absolutist out to undermine local government authority and promote the paving of hundreds of square miles of often scenic land.


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