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.
Although current zoning allows one home per three acres, terrain and the suitability for septic systems can require more land for individual homes.
Every house built in Loudoun adds an average of 10 automobile trips per day to the area's road network -- including such crucial regional thoroughfares as Routes 50 and 7 and the Dulles Toll Road.
Every 100 homes send an average of 83 children to public schools. The county's share to educate one child exceeds $10,000 per year.
A new home must be worth about $1 million to generate enough tax revenue to pay for the county services, including schools, it requires.
Jeffrey R. Gould of J.R. Gould Enterprises, the developer of Bloomfield Heights, declined to answer questions about his proposal. He criticized his opponents, however, and said their clamor, and the county's rezoning proposal, are motivating him to push his application through as quickly as possible.
"When they change the zoning, it forces things to develop up more quickly than they would otherwise," Gould said. "I know many people, owners of property, who did not want to develop their property, but they did because they did not want to lose their investments."
Gould purchased the land to develop Bloomfield weeks after the Supreme Court's decision. Others have moved equally fast. Danny Osteen, an engineer with Tri-Tek Engineering of Herndon, is working on two projects in western Loudoun. One, Waterford Woods, received approval after the Supreme Court's decision. The development would include seven homes on 28 acres. A second, near the West Virginia line, is under review and would yield 100 home sites on 800 acres.
Osteen believes the county should leave the minimum lot size at three acres. He said taxpayers and government should be willing to pay for new roads and schools, with developers paying their "fair share."
"Western Loudoun has been A3 [three-acre lots] for, I don't know, 100 years," Osteen said. "Why all of a sudden is it not okay? Some people are starting to panic because there's not enough roads and not enough schools."
Those who oppose the Unison development share many of the concerns voiced across western Loudoun. They say the subdivision would overwhelm rural roads, some of them unpaved, with traffic. It would add a concentration of individual wells in an area where water pressure is already low, threatening existing homeowners' supply. And because of soil heavy with clay, most of the new homes would rely on alternative septic systems -- basically manmade sand dunes -- which in other parts of the county have struggled to handle the amount of water used by modern families. Some have failed.
More importantly, opponents say, Bloomfield Heights would take from the rural character of a village that looks over a Civil War battlefield and commands state and federal historic status.
"It's pristine. It's beautiful," said G. Kimball Hart, an energy management consultant who lives on Bloomfield Road, just outside Unison and across from the proposed subdivision. "And for all those reasons people want to preserve it. There's this very brief window that's creating an opportunity for some real out-of-place zoning. They're just going to be eyesores. They don't fit in."
Loudoun County's controversial rural zoning ordinance was the product of three years of deliberations. It was tossed out when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the county had not properly advertised its public hearings.
The new zoning ordinance, which the county Planning Commission will begin reviewing Jan. 14, is not quite as restrictive as the first one but would achieve largely the same goal: to radically limit home building and preserve the rural nature of the west.
The ordinance divides the western part of the county into two large areas. In one, the proposal would allow lots of 10 acres each, and in the other lots of 20 acres each, as long as developers clustered their homes and preserved open space. Lot size would fall to 7.5 and 15 acres respectively in the two areas if developers agreed to pay the county a cash fee of about $37,000 per home. With neither clustering nor cash payments, minimum lot size would rise to 20 and 40 acres respectively.
The county's approach in the west sits in stark contrast to the booming growth of eastern Loudoun, where thousands of new homes have sprouted this decade. And more are coming: In the final two months of 2005, developers submitted rezoning applications for more than 10,000 new homes in the Dulles South area -- where, in pockets, rural character still prevails, but perhaps not for long.
West of that imaginary line that separates east from west, however, the encroachment of suburbia will abruptly stop if supporters of the new rural ordinance have their way.