Land-Use Laws Aim To Restore Confidence

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Two bills aimed at making Loudoun County's zoning and land-use process more transparent have been signed into law by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and will go into effect July 1.

One law applies only to Loudoun and requires members of the county Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals to disclose any business or financial relationships they have had with land-use applicants during the 12 months before hearings on an application.

Such relationships include being a partner, employee, agent or attorney of an applicant or of others involved in a project. Some situations -- such as an employer-employee tie between applicant and public official -- will require the official's recusal from the proceedings. Business or financial ties involving members of the official's immediate household also must be disclosed.

The law also requires Loudoun officials to disclose, at the time a land-use application is being considered, any gifts or campaign donations of more than $100 from the applicant.

The second law, which applies statewide, requires local government officers and certain local government employees to list all real property in which they have an ownership interest -- regardless of its location -- and to name any co-owners of that property. Currently, state law requires the officials to disclose only property they own in the jurisdiction where they serve and in any contiguous county, city or town.

Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun), who sponsored the two bills, said he made the proposals to stem an erosion of public trust in the county's land-use process.

"In light of the concerns that so many citizens had last year about the land-use process in Loudoun County, I thought it was important to help restore people's confidence in the integrity in local government," Herring said.

In January 2007, The Washington Post published a series of articles detailing close ties between real estate interests and some Loudoun County officials. Following the articles, local authorities announced a federal probe into potential public corruption in the county. Asked about the status of the investigation, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office declined to comment Friday.

Herring said he originally introduced the Loudoun-only measure as a statewide bill but met with opposition from some legislators who argued that it would burden localities with unnecessary administrative costs.

"I still think that matters of conflict of interest and disclosure really should be uniform throughout the state. But there is a certain administrative cost that goes along with this, so I understand the argument," Herring said.

Loudoun Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) said he was pleased that Herring's bills had passed, adding that he has been working with other board members to adopt county policies that go beyond the new state laws.

An ethics package has been working its way through the board's Finance/Government Services and Operations Committee and could come to a vote at the board's next business meeting May 6, Burton said.

Among the most important proposals in the package, Burton said, is one that would prevent land-use applicants from making any changes to an application within 35 days of the board's voting on it.

"Too often in the past we've received changes in the last minute by developers," Burton said, adding that such revisions prevent an adequate review by supervisors, county staff members and the public.

Other measures being considered by the board would allow members of the public to sign up electronically to speak at public hearings and would require that land-use applications be posted on the county's Web site 24 hours after board members receive their copies.

Like Herring, Burton said the new measures would do much to restore faith in local officials.

The announcement of the federal probe "left the county with a cloud of suspicion hanging over the business of the board, and so I've been trying to get policies adopted and enacted that would remove those clouds," he said.

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