Goodwill Erodes as Town Grows

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 4, 2006

On 84 acres of raw, red dirt across the road from the post office, the town hall and the restaurant La Fleur de Lis, excavators and diggers are transforming tiny Lovettsville (pop. 912) into yet another outer suburb of this sprawling region.

For the most part, residents of the enclave in northern Loudoun County have welcomed Lovettsville Town Center, a novel attempt to preserve the community's charm by combining shops, government buildings and 158 homes in the heart of downtown. Plans call for an old-fashioned town square; a town green with a bandstand; wide, welcoming sidewalks; and reduced speed limits.

But the goodwill has come under strain in recent months as the project's scope has changed and two council members' dealings with the developer are coming under scrutiny. McLean-based Elm Street Development is asking the Town Council to allow 55 more townhouses, something residents did not want when the project was approved in 2002. Elm Street Development also recently revealed that a grocery store -- residents' greatest wish for the project -- is not economically practical in such a small town.

Adding even further to public suspicion is the revelation that two members of the Town Council made millions of dollars selling 20 acres to the developer -- and are poised to vote this spring on its new plan.

The council members, Walter D. Martin and James K. McDonough, received $2.6 million apiece after selling respective 10-acre parcels to Elm Street in September, according to land records. They were not on the council in 2002. But now, with just four other council members -- and a mayor who votes only to break ties -- Martin and McDonough could easily cast the deciding votes.

"It's money in their pockets," said William A. Fleming, a former town planning commissioner who opposes the expansion plans. "They should not be on that board voting to have their land annexed into another piece of property. That's two guaranteed votes that Elm Street is going to get what they want."

That kind of reaction has taken Martin and McDonough by surprise, both said this week. They said they made no promises to Elm Street to vote for the project. Both had been planning to develop their properties since they bought them, Martin in 1999 and McDonough in 1990. Elm Street's proposal adds no more houses than the council members could have developed anyway under existing zoning regulations.

Still, as a result of the uproar -- more than 300 residents of Lovettsville and its surroundings crowded into a public hearing at the town firehouse Feb. 22 -- Martin and McDonough have asked Loudoun County Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman whether they ought to recuse themselves from the vote. Both have said they would vote on the matter, but both plan to wait to hear what Plowman has to say.

"There are those who still say it's unethical, but I tend to disagree," McDonough said.

Remarkably, most of the residents at the public hearing said their biggest beef with the project is the lack of plans for a grocery store (the nearest is three miles north, in Brunswick, Md.). But they also say that the land controversy, and the proposed expansion of the project, have fueled their suspicion that the public's views on the Town Center are irrelevant to the developer and town officials.

"They sent out these surveys saying, 'Here, tell us what you want,' and 83 percent said a grocery store," said Melany D. Kleis, who moved with her family to the outskirts of Lovettsville four years ago. "Then they said, 'No, we're just going to continue doing what we want.' "

Mayor Elaine D. Walker, a Lovettsville native who supported the original Town Center, said many of those clamoring for a grocery are newcomers who don't live within the town's corporate limits. She said the developer is trying to attract a convenience store or pharmacy that offers limited provisions. But marketing data show that Lovettsville cannot support the kind of specialty store, such as Trader Joe's, that some residents want.

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