County Shifts Focus to Improving Sterling Area

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

Loudoun County leaders say they are making progress on an effort to improve the quality of life in Sterling, an area that some residents and officials think has been neglected over the years as county government focused its attention on faster-growing communities.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday praised a series of recent community meetings that county planners organized in Sterling at the board's direction. They said the meetings were a good first step in responding to the needs of the county's older neighborhoods.

"Citizens are very pleased that they're being heard, and they do feel that it's been a long time in coming, which I agree," said Supervisor Susan Klimek Buckley (D-Sugarland Run), one of eight supervisors on the nine-member board who won her seat last year on a promise to slow the county's pace of growth.

"In the past, other boards have focused on other areas in the county and on new development, and I'm happy that this board has made a commitment to focusing on current residents."

Loudoun may be known for its quaint farmhouses and spacious new suburban homes, but nearly a quarter of its 271,000 residents live in the Sterling area, a largely middle-class enclave of modest homes and small yards that was built up starting in the 1960s.

The Sterling area has some of the county's oldest homes and one of its highest rates of foreclosure this year. Moreover, it was the epicenter of last year's flare-up over illegal immigration in Loudoun, as some residents blamed illegal immigrants for the peeling paint, unkempt yards and deteriorating conditions in some neighborhoods.

Meetings in late April and this month were part of a months-long county effort to assess the needs in a section of Loudoun north of Dulles International Airport and east of the Broad Run. The initiative, which covers an area that the county refers to as Sterling and Potomac, does not include all neighborhoods with a Sterling mailing address.

More than 300 residents attended the four meetings, and nearly 400 have filled out surveys. The results will provide the basis for some of the recommendations that county staff members will begin making this summer, said Michael "Miguel" Salinas, a county planner who is managing the Sterling-Potomac outreach effort.

"The report back will include a number of recommendations and strategies that specifically came from the citizens," Salinas said. "It's a citizen-driven process."

During the meetings, residents were asked to list their likes and dislikes about their community, said several of those attending the sessions. Complaints ranged from residential crowding to the lack of affordable housing and a failure by some homeowners to maintain their homes in good condition.

Some asked for better coverage by the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office and improved lighting in high-crime areas. Others said they lack a homeowners association to enforce guidelines for the upkeep and appearance of their neighborhood.

But it seemed that most of the residents generally liked Sterling, with its small single-family homes and sprinkling of commercial development, said Jeanne West, a Sterling Park resident and business owner.

In recent years, she said, county officials have built schools and libraries elsewhere in Loudoun to cope with population growth. But in Sterling, where there is little new construction, residents make do with decent but aging amenities, she said.

"I don't think anyone wants to change the structure of the neighborhood," said West, who last year ran unsuccessfully for the Board of Supervisors. "If the county facilities were spruced up, modernized, I think it would start things in the right direction."

County staff members expect to present a preliminary report, which will include recommendations, in early summer and a final report in early fall. Board Chairman Scott K. York (I) and Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) suggested that the board should have its regular meeting in the Sterling area instead of at the county government building in Leesburg when it receives at least one of the reports.

The reports are not expected to include budget recommendations. County supervisors, who enacted spending cuts and a tax increase this year and are braced for more financial hardships next year, will have to look carefully at any recommendations that require funding.

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