For Builders, Fears of Limits Spur Loudoun Housing Rush

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

The picturesque crossroads of Unison in western Loudoun County look much like they did 200 years ago: stuccoed farmhouses, rolling horse pastures and narrow, unpaved roads. Carriage aficionados regularly clop along Unison's lanes.

Yet Unison may be a prime example of what some in Loudoun are describing as a modern-day land rush. Just up a rise from a church that housed a Civil War field hospital, on about 90 acres within sight of the village, a developer wants to build 28 houses.

And he will, if his paperwork is processed quickly enough.

In March, on a technicality, the Virginia Supreme Court threw out a controversial zoning ordinance intended to vastly restrict the number of houses that could be built in a wide swath of Loudoun's rural west. Now, county leaders are working quickly to approve a new ordinance, one nearly as restrictive as the last proposal. But it is not law yet, and in the meantime, the county's older, less restrictive rules, which allow one house every three acres, prevail.

As the clock ticks, developers are pushing hundreds of new homes through the county's approval process. There is much at stake: In a county where the average home price approaches $600,000, developers stand to make millions. And residents stand to be overrun, some Loudoun officials say, by increased traffic, schoolchildren and a demand for government services the county can ill afford.

Bob Gordon, the owner of a Leesburg title company and chairman of the citizen committee that drafted the new ordinance, said the proposal is needed at a time when unprecedented -- and unexpected -- growth is poised to change the landscape in western Loudoun.

"When they came up with three-acre lots in the late '70s, they said, 'Oh, it's a pretty good size to have a house and a well and maybe keep some pigs,' " Gordon said. "I don't think anybody in their wildest dreams ever imagined that all of western Loudoun would get developed into three-acre lots. Unless we're going to build superhighways, you're going to have fiscal and traffic gridlock unless you do something to reduce the density."

Consider these numbers, compiled from county and school district data:

The proposed rules would limit the number of houses across western Loudoun's 300-plus square miles to 14,000. The old zoning still in effect would allow nearly 46,000 new homes.

Since March 3, when the Supreme Court issued its opinion, developers have submitted nearly 60 subdivision applications to develop 4,478 acres in western Loudoun. Many more applications in their early stages, including Bloomfield Heights in Unison, are not included in those numbers.

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