In Loudoun, Two Worlds CollideBy Glenn Frankel and Peter Pae
Washington Post Staff Writers
March 24, 1997; Page A01
When Dale Polen Myers drives through the rural portions of eastern Loudoun County where she was born and raised, she sees more than cornfields, meadows and oak forests. She sees dollar signs.
In her mind's eye, the chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors sees acre upon acre of offices and retail stores, and tens of thousands of new houses stretching cross-county from the Potomac River to the Prince William County line.
"As you're sitting here, you'd think, 'Well, look at all this wonderful open space,'‚" Myers said during a recent tour of Ashburn, the suburban population center rising in the heart of eastern Loudoun.
But Myers, who grew up on a farm just down the road, pointed to a rolling pasture: "This is an office park. I mean, this is a huge piece. It's got 1,000 condos on it approved, it's got a bunch of office [space] on it, it's got a retail component. . . .
"You think, 'Wow, look at the farmland.' But it's not."
Commanding the western flank of the Washington metropolitan region, Loudoun County is the area's fastest-growing jurisdiction. Its population of 123,000 has doubled over the last 15 years and is projected to double again over the next 15. The county adds an average of 3,000 homes and 7,000 people each year. And Loudoun's plans for business development are even more ambitious: The county, which has about 14 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, has approved construction for 170 million more—more than the District of Columbia and Arlington combined today.
All this growth comes at an enormous cost in open space. Loudoun lost 18,132 acres of farmland, barren land and forests to development during the 1980s and is expected to lose an additional 59,982—more than the total acreage of the District—from 1990 to 2020, according to a projection prepared for The Washington Post by the National Center for Resource Innovations, of Rosslyn. That's considerably more than any other county in the region, an average of 5.5 acres per day—the equivalent of four football fields.
Recent Boards of Supervisors have approved rezonings for 52,801 new houses—more than double the county's current supply of 40,000. They overrode their own planning commission to open up for immediate development a vast tract of land on the southern side of Dulles International Airport. And they are slowly turning Route 7—the county's eastern gateway, originally designed with a 300-foot buffer of open space along each side—into a gaudy gantlet of strip malls, outlet stores and parking lots.
"There has been no value placed on open land other than its development potential," said Peggy Maio, a longtime activist who represents the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Myers and Maio may disagree on whether the loss of vast amounts of open space to development is good or bad. Either way, one conclusion seems indisputable: Loudoun is not only becoming the next Fairfax County, but its explosive growth is setting a pattern for more distant neighbors, from Prince William to Clarke to Spotsylvania.
Loudoun in many ways epitomizes development Virginia-style in a state where private property is a sacred value. In contrast with Maryland, Virginia lawmakers and judges repeatedly have upheld the right of landowners to develop open space to the "highest and best use"—maximizing possible profits with minimal government constraints. Local officials can make no substantive change in land-use regulations without approval from the General Assembly in Richmond, where real estate agents, home builders and their attorneys have long constituted one of the most powerful and entrenched lobbies.
When it comes to proposals such as a moratorium on residential rezonings, said Loudoun County Treasurer H. Roger Zurn Jr. (R), "Virginia law clearly doesn't allow that to happen. . .‚. You'd be sued big-time and lose your shirt in the process."
Loudoun is a land of contrasts and conflicts. Its western half remains one of this region's most precious visual jewels, with rolling hillsides, majestic trees, winding country roads and picturesque farms. But it, too, is threatened. While open space in eastern Loudoun is being swallowed in huge mouthfuls, its counterpart in the west is being nibbled in bite-size chunks—parcel by parcel and farm by farm.
"Once all this treasure is gone, it's gone. It cannot be turned back around," said Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer), whose vast district encompasses parts of both east and west. A political opponent of Myers, he mistrusts unbridled growth and has proposed applying the brakes, but he's a flinty political independent on a Republican-dominated board. "If we're not careful how we proceed in the next 20 years," he warned, "this area will look just like the Los Angeles basin."
Virtually everyone agrees that western Loudoun's distinctive landscape should be preserved, but they disagree vehemently over how. Some want to follow the lead of neighboring Montgomery County to the north and spend public funds to buy and maintain open space. But many Loudouners, including Myers, view such programs as vaguely socialistic and highly suspect. They insist that market forces prevail.
However different their cultures and politics, east and west Loudoun are inextricably bound when it comes to open space issues. Explosive growth in the east has pushed up land prices in the west as well and helped strangle traditional farming there. The new, privately built, four-lane Dulles Greenway, a toll road designed to ease the commute for eastern residents, has opened up the west for further growth.
But times are changing in Loudoun. The tidal wave of residential growth has more than tripled the county's debt for new roads and schools and has triggered a backlash among residents. Open space, whether aging farmland or uncut forest, may not always be profitable for those who own it. But the taxes paid on it more than cover the public services it uses; cows and trees, after all, do not go to school. A Piedmont Environmental Council study—disputed by developers—put the cost of new residential development at $1.55 in services for every dollar it generates in taxes, while open space costs just 50 cents for every dollar generated.
Open space also provides the basis for a growing tourism industry fueled by Washingtonians who drive to western Loudoun to experience farms, historical sites and vistas they no longer have in their back yards.
Western Loudouners have mobilized in recent years against moves they perceive as potential inroads for developers. But many are aware they are fighting an uphill battle.
"If we try to make it stay just like it is, we may lose everything," warned Milton Herd, the county's former planning director, who lives outside Round Hill. "But if we bend and twist, we can preserve most of it. There's a grudging recognition that it's gonna change and we should try to shape that change rather than try to stop it."
At a crossroads
Myers, 40, can recall when Ashburn was a country crossroads with a train station, a general store, an undertaker's parlor and a semipro baseball team. But that world started to change in the early 1960s when Dulles International Airport opened.
For land developers, Dulles wasn't vital for the runways and terminal above ground so much as for the sewer line underneath. The line ran northward to the Potomac River and was big enough to service thousands of new houses in eastern Loudoun. The first to take advantage were the Broyhills, politically connected local developers who put together a 1,777-acre package from 15 farms and in 1962 won county approval to build Sterling Park near the old country crossroads known as Sterling.
Myers recalls accompanying her father to Sterling Park's model home office. "They had houses starting there at $17,000, and I remember our dad saying, 'Who in the world would ever spend $17,000 to live out here?' Because you would hear people saying this is the end of the Earth."
One man who saw the potential was a one-eyed cattle farmer named Marcus J. Bles. He moved to eastern Loudoun in the early 1960s after selling his old farm in Fairfax County to developers who turned it into Tysons Corner. Flush with cash, Bles began buying on the next suburban frontier, painstakingly putting together small parcels and selling them to developers for a huge profit. Bles lived simply, Myers recalls, in a house with bare floors, lawn furniture in the living room and a kitchen full of ancient appliances. "You would think the man didn't have two nickels to rub together," recalled Myers, whose family helped Bles farm much of the property he acquired.
University Center, a 575-acre site on Route 7 that was transformed from fields to commercial use, is an example of how Bles did business. According to court records, he began assembling the property in 1964 by purchasing a 253-acre farm from a recently widowed farmer's wife. Over the next 10 years, he acquired several other properties from elderly owners whose spouses had died and who could no longer farm. He would spend $638,750 for the entire package.
Canny and patient, Bles held on to the land until 1985, when Loudoun was on the verge of a real estate boom. That year he sold the parcels to a subsidiary of Southmark, a high-flying savings and loan based in Dallas, for $7.1 million—more than 10 times what he had paid. And just one year later, Southmark sold the property to Charles E. Smith, one of Washington's largest real estate management companies, for $26‚million. In 1987, Smith successfully applied to the county to rezone the land from agricultural to commercial.
The boom became one of the biggest in Northern Virginia's history. Many projects that have become the foundation of eastern Loudoun's suburban growth—Ashburn Village, Ashburn Farm, South Riding, Beaumeade Corporate Park, Countryside, Brambleton, Broadlands—were put together in the mid-1980s.
Although eastern Loudoun was at least 30 miles from downtown Washington, buyers came because real estate was comparatively cheap—houses sold for $30,000 to $50,000 less than equivalent homes next door in Fairfax County. They also came because of Loudoun's image as a rural, community-oriented county—"The One Place Where Virginia Is Still Virginia," proclaims the sales brochure for Ashburn Farm.
David Boslaugh, a retired Navy officer who moved from McLean to Ashburn eight years ago, was attracted by the setting. Behind his house is a creek, a farmer's field and an old silo—all of which are slated for destruction. "We knew from the beginning that there would be development," he said. "Although we love it, we knew it would not be here forever."
County officials watched Loudoun's rapid transformation with a sense of fatalism. "Once the ball started to roll," said former supervisor Frank Raflo, "I don't think we were ever able to catch up to it."
"Did I like my small community?" Dale Myers asks now. "I loved it." But for her and other farmers, the county's growth was a form of liberation from the bleak economics of a dying way of life and work. Development offered farmers a chance "for the first time in their lives, to have a new house," she said. "It allowed them to put some money aside to make the next generation a little better off."
The bottom fell out in 1989. Southmark went bust, as did a number of other corporate landholders, and huge parcels came on the market at bargain prices. As the demand for corporate headquarters, office space and retail stores collapsed, developers petitioned the county to rezone the land to the one use they believed would sell even in a recession: new houses.
The new Republican-dominated Board of Supervisors elected in 1991 was more than willing to comply. "We need to become active partners, and not adversaries, in development," declared Richard Roberts, then the board vice chairman. According to a compilation by the county's planning staff, the board and its planning commission approved 34,895 new residential units—more than the five previous boards combined.
But the plan sets few obstacles in front of determined developers. Take the case of Round Hill. The county's plan called for limiting development in western Loudoun to manageable dimensions and steering it around existing villages. But a development partnership called Intergate envisaged far more: Having bought 3,000 acres of farmland around the village of 500 people, in 1987 it proposed a subdivision with as many as 6,000 houses.
Round Hill residents were stunned. "We were so small, we had one diner, two gas stations and a post office with three parking spaces," recalled Supervisor Eleanor C. Towe (D-Blue Ridge), one of many who opposed the proposal. "People had no concept of how large an impact this kind of project would make."
The dramatic proposal turned out to be Intergate's opening bid. For the next two years, Bruce De Atley, a Loudoun developer hired by the company, worked with officials and residents. Eventually, Intergate proposed a scaled-down subdivision of 1,300 houses that included several enticements, including an 11-acre park with public access to nearby Sleeter Lake and improved sewer and water facilities. The Town Council and the county Board of Supervisors acceded. "They realized they needed to provide community amenities and to open up the facilities and services to everyone," De Atley said.
Towe, who is now the lone Democrat on the Board of Supervisors, and a handful of activists sued to block the project. When they ran out of funds, they settled with the developer, who agreed to pare the project further to 1,100 houses and leave 1,000 acres as open space. Still, when completed, the project, with its estimated population of 2,500, will dwarf the village.
Developers used the same tactics to win support for opening Dulles South, about 39 square miles of largely undeveloped open space in the county's southeast corner. Loudoun's planning staff had recommended that most of the area remain designated as rural for the next two decades. But the 17 developers who controlled 50 percent of the land were not prepared to wait. They focused on the plight of the 600 families living in the area who for years had endured failing septic systems and poor water quality. In return for opening the area to growth, the developers offered to build sewer and water lines. "Dulles South should be opened up immediately," a coalition of developers declared in 1991 to the county board. "Residents have waited long enough. Let the market decide."
The board agreed. In July 1991, it voted to overrule its own planning commission and approve Dulles South for development.
Former county planner John Merrithew said the changes offered a stark example of the power developers and landowners exert over politicians. "It becomes a process of zoning for dollars," he said. "You get so involved in the process of negotiation over sewer or roads or schools that everyone forgets the question of whether the project was a good idea in the first place."
Merrithew is one of four planners who quit in the last year. All cited personal reasons for leaving, but a recent consultant's study ordered by the Board of Supervisors suggested that pressures placed on them by pro-development supervisors and planning commissioners was a significant factor.
Shift of power
New residents are not inclined to accept traffic-choked roads and crowded schools as a burden they should bear to preserve open space in the west. They resoundingly defeated a proposal to build a racetrack in Ashburn that would have provided revenue and profits for western horse farmers but weekend traffic jams for easterners. And the new Board of Supervisors has scrapped the provision in the master land-use plan that allowed developers to build more houses in the east in return for preserving farmland in the west Loudoun. "We weren't invited to go down their driveway to actually sit in the meadow and watch the cows graze, so what was it really giving us?" Myers asked.
Myers has sought to hold the line against perceived anti-growth forces in other ways. She has repeatedly rejected suggestions that new residential development costs far more in county services than it generates in taxes. But when a majority of planning commissioners in the fall decided to test that notion and requested a study of the costs of growth, Myers and the board vetoed the idea, saying the commissioners had exceeded their authority.
The conflict between pro-growth advocates and open space proponents came to a head in September at an unusually acrimonious public meeting. Myers invited the Piedmont Environmental Council to present its ideas on how to preserve Loudoun's rural character. The council proposed a two-pronged program: expanding support for traditional farmers and alternative new farms, and establishing a land program similar to that in Montgomery County that would use tax dollars to protect open space by purchasing development rights from farmers. The program would have given control of the open space to the county, which planned to preserve it from any development.
Whitener said preservationists "don't want to solve the problem; they want the government to solve the problem. . .‚. All the do-gooders can get together and buy the development rights and leave us and leave our money out of it." Another speaker, developer John Andrews, said the proposal smacked of "the socialistic power that they might have over in Maryland. Here in Virginia, I think land rights are a hell of a little more sacred."
The supervisors agreed. Led by Myers, they voted 5 to 3 against conducting a study of the environmental council's proposal. The report was dead on arrival. Afterward, a stunned Peggy Maio, one of the council's leaders, said, "In essence we were invited into their living room and then treated as intruders."
Intruders or not, Maio said the issues her group has raised will not go away. "What is at stake is the future of this county," she said, "whether we continue to sprawl or we learn to manage growth and preserve what we have before it's all gone."
Tomorrow: Farm vs. sprawl in Montgomery County
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