By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006
After months of acrimonious debate, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal yesterday to open up 9,200 acres west of Dulles International Airport to high-density residential development.
The 6 to 3 vote ends plans for thousands of new homes in several large planned communities in a mostly rural area known as Dulles South, along Route 50 in southeastern Loudoun County. The vote also scuttles a proposal by George Mason University to build a campus in the area. GMU was depending on a gift of 123 acres from Greenvest, one of the developers poised to build in Dulles South, but that was rescinded with last night's vote.
"This was about creating a new suburban area, but at this time in Loudoun's existence, we can't afford it," said Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run). "We can't afford the cost. We can't afford the reduction to our quality of life, particularly regarding transportation."
The outcome delighted opponents who had said that the new residences -- ultimately as many as 33,800, according to county estimates -- would overwhelm an already inadequate road network and send county property taxes soaring to support new demand for services such as education and public safety. Current regulations would allow a total of only 4,600 residences to be built in Dulles South.
"It's a victory for the county," said Steve Hines, a resident of the area and member of the opposition group Families for Dulles South. "It shows that the board came back to the fact that we can't afford the dreams that somebody else had. The county will be better for it, and the taxpayer will be better for it."
Opponents also had said that the planned communities would ruin a part of the county known as the transition area, where small subdivisions with houses on one or more acres sit alongside farm fields and where current zoning rules protect the area as a visual buffer between Loudoun's dense suburban east and its rural west.
But developers and other supporters of the Dulles South blueprint said that the government has squandered an opportunity to exact hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure investment from developers, including for roads, schools and parks, in exchange for the right to build more housing.
Greenvest, which had proposed the most sweeping planned communities within Dulles South, had offered to build nearly $200 million in road improvements as well as a 200-acre sports and recreation complex south of Braddock Road. A large component of the proposals was the provision of affordable houses in a community where housing prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
"We . . . remain committed to building quality communities in Loudoun County," said Greenvest chief executive Jim Duszynski in a written statement. "We look forward to working with George Mason University, the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors and the county staff to work out a successful resolution that could bring, among other things, a world-class university campus, road improvements at no cost to the taxpayers and more affordably priced housing to Loudoun County."
In the end, supervisors were unconvinced of the proposal's value. A key piece of the Dulles South controversy was the debate over which scenario would be more costly to the county: "by-right development," in which developers build only the number of residences allowed under existing density regulations and are under no obligation to invest in infrastructure; or higher-density planned communities, in which the county allows more residences in exchange for such investment.
The debate even reached Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who won Loudoun and Virginia overall last year on a message to give local governments more tools to make smart land-use decisions. Kaine angered developers -- and even some Loudoun supervisors who voted against the proposal last night -- by ordering the Virginia Department of Transportation to conduct a regional traffic study on Dulles South to test a new law he promoted requiring such studies when development is proposed.
The study's results, which predicted hours of gridlock on more than a dozen regional roads in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties 20 years from now, were hailed by Dulles South opponents.
Supporters criticized the methodology and accused Kaine of playing politics by meddling in local land-use decisions. They also said that the study did not clearly state which part of the new traffic would be the result of Dulles South. And they said that the study did not account for job growth in Loudoun nor for expanded transit services, such as a proposed Metrorail extension into the county, both of which would reduce traffic along commuter routes into Fairfax.
"The citizens are going to lose," said Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), the proposal's leading booster on the board. "History is going to shame us. . . . I think there is a heavy tax burden to follow. I think the citizens of Loudoun County are going to have to pick up the slack for by-right development."
Still, even without factoring in increased transportation demands, a county staff analysis shows that by-right development in Dulles South would require about $216 million in new infrastructure, not including roads. The 9,200-acre proposal, in contrast, would have required more than $1.1 billion -- far more than what developers were offering to donate in exchange for more housing.
Said Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), echoing the views of the majority:
"I believe that adding more houses to the transition area in the long run will make things worse."