The year 1975 was to be a new beginning for insurance agent Robert Lucas. That was the year he and his wife had their second child and bought their first house, a $44,000 rambler with a VA mortgage and no money down 30 miles from Washington on rural Loudoun County's eastern fringe.
"It was one of the happiest years of our lives," says Lucas, now an insurance sales manager in Falls Church.
Then Loudoun County planners porposed transplanting some of the county's poorer residents to subsidized housing in the middle of Lucas' neighborhood. Robert Lucas feared his dreams were at an end.
Public hearings were called in February to discuss the subsidized housing for Sterling Park, a burgeoning, unincorporated community of blacktop roads and new supermarkets five miles north of Dulles International Airport. In meeting halls packed with angry residents, hundreds who shared Lucas' concerns and values in the bedroom communities along Rte. 7 loosed an outpouring of rage.
When it was over, county planners packed their bags and went back to the county seat in Leesburg, their plan never heard of again.
The young homemakers with their display of defiant passion, had won.
But in preserving the kind of community on which they had staked their hopes and their bank accounts, the families of Sterling Park also showed how rapidly growing Loudoun County is a county divided. Divided east and west. Divided rich and poor. Divided between the ideals of recent settlers who made their dreams come true, and the frustrations of Loudoun's lifelong poor.
"I think that if the people in Loudoun felt there was a true need, I mean a true need beyond a shadow of a doubt, they would have listened to logic. We just never saw it in black and white," says Lucas, a community activist who aspires to a seat on the county school board.
Others say the Sterling Park issue revealed that newcomers living along the county's eastern edge are ignorant of the serious problems confronting the rapidly changing county and are attempting to avoid housing problem in Loudoun County," said Ann Van Deventer, supervisor of child protective services. "There just isn't any housing."
"People in Sterling saw a house there as an island or a fortress where the family would be safe," said county planning chief John Dugan, a land-use specialist who was lured from a job with the City of Memphis by the challenges of managing Loudoun's phenomenal growth. "It was an escape. They felt that this would be destroying that kind of community. And really, there's not a whole lot you can do to dissuade people who think their whole life investment is being threatened."
Lucas and thousands like him are the new immigrants to this, the northernmost of Virginia counties, a wedge of rolling real estate known in fashion magazines for its fox hunts, race horses and meandering country roads set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.
Finding housing may be tough for the county's poor, but in the last 10 years the wave of new immigrants has found a housing boom in bucolic Loudoun County, where the population has grown from 37,150 in 1970 to 57,427 in 1980, or 55 percent. More than half of these have settled on a small area of former farmland between the Potomac and the Fairfax County line. Today more than 20,000 are firmly planted in planned communities there, in neat rows of bungalows and town houses where plowshares recently tilled the soil.
Within the next decade, Loudoun planners expect 40,000 more to follow.
Oliver Frye lives on the other side of the county, far from Sterling Park, close to the West Virginia line in the little town of Lovettsville where he has always lived.
A former auto mechanic, Frye, 68, reared six children in a house he rents for $150 a month. He pays for it out of his montly $240 Social Security check, and his wife Nellie's of $137. Not long ago the landlord installed a new sink and cabinets in Frye's kitchen. The sink has no drain. It doesn't have any water either.
Frye draws water from a spigot he installed for $30 in the front yard, bathes in a wash pan and uses the outside privy for a toilet. He empties dirty dishwater in the yard.
"I can't put water in the house," he says. "Who could do it for that amount? It takes that much to live and the cost of living, I'll say, is out of sight."
Frye's family is among more than 1,600 county households that Loudoun lists as living in substandard condition: welfare mothers packed into close quarters with relatives, tenant farmers housed in shacks without electricity and Social Security pensioners who often pay half their income on rent.
About 300, like Frye, are on a waiting list for federal rental assistance. Some will never see the top of the list. Some probably will die first because there's nowwhere for them to go. County officials are glad there aren't more.
"There's no question that we will not be able to accomodate the people on our waiting list, whether it's 300 or 150," says Loudoun's housing coordinator, former social worker Sandra Shope. "For every individual that calls in today, there are 10 already ahead of them. It's probably the toughest part of the job, trying to explain to people we're sorry, that's just the way it goes."
Poverty was once accepted as a way of life for an unfortunate few in hunt country -- a place where civic leaders for decades resisted federal aid the way they resisted development, bristling at the notion of outside interference. That began to change when middle-income people like Robert Lucas, finding it nearly impossible to afford homes closer to Washington, cast their eyes on the quiet landscape out on Rte. 7.
The more the new immigrants poured into Loudoun County, the more the county government grew. Four years ago the county formed a housing office, with people to run it -- people like Sandra Shope -- who were sympathetic to the needs of the county's poor.
A few months ago the housing office unveiled its first construction plans and made its modest proposal for Sterling Park: 60 subsidized apartments for families and 102 for the elderly. The answer, as one resident saw it: "Sterling Park should not become a dumping ground for the county's rejects."
"It was really difficult for me to understand what people were so upset about," said Shope. "We were only talking about 60 units. Sixty lousy units!"
"You have to fight deep down inside with some of the things you feel in your heart versus what you feel the realities are," said county Supervisor Andrew Bird, a railroad administrator who "bit the bullet" six years ago to buy a "50,000 house in Sterling on a $17,000 salary. Today Bird speaks for the prevailing mood. "What should we be trying to do? Can we take care of all the perceived needs there are in the world? No, and we shouldn't try. We've reached the limit."
Like Robert Lucas, Blanche Grimes moved to Loudoun County from the Lynchburg area. She moved there 50 years ago. Her husband was a farmer and when he died in 1944 she worked as a waitress to support her children.
Last year, at age 73, Grimes stopped doing housework for neighbors after she twisted her back.
Grimes lives in a small, two-floor duplex next to her landlord. She pays the $110 rent from her monthly $260 government stipend. Though the county allows her $400 to cover her winter heating bills, Grimes closes off part of the apartment each winter because "it just costs too much to heat all of it. I have an electric blanket in the bedroom. I don't mind a cold bedroom."
Rental assistance for people like Grimes comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 program. The county receives $400,000 a year to cover the annual cost of 167 apartments. About 145 have been filed. Shope says it's hard just finding vacant apartments for the others.
Real estate agents dispute this, saying plenty of apartments were available right where the county wanted to build. Most of these, Shope said, are too expensive and would not qualify for the HUD program. Only 1 percent of the county's entire stock of 2,600 rentals are ever vacant, she says, and rents keep going up.
"Our social workers sometimes go around looking for empty farmhouses, just trying to find someplace available where we can put out people," Van Deventer says.
Last winter social workers found one family of six who had been evicted from their home when they could not pay rent and could not find another they could afford. They were living in a car.
Frye and Grimes are caught between the fears of the county's newcomers and the double-edged munificence of the federal government. For years, HUD promoted the construction of new housing for the needy. But in one sense, HUD is part of the reason they live the way they do.
The Section 8 program's long list of regulations often denies benefits to those who need it most.
Frye, for instance, is ineligible for assistance precisely because the house he rents has no water, no bath and no toilet. Grimes, even though she meets requirements of paying more than 25 percent of her income on rent, falls short of regulations because her bedroom doesn't have a light fixture in the ceiling, or enough elelctrical outlets in the walls.
The Loudoun housing office took a tongue lashing last year from a federal auditor who found that the county had been giving Section 8 funds to tenants who had no locks on their windows.
"It's one of the standards that may not seem most appropriate in a rural setting, but it's one of the standards that HUD insists on enforcing," Shope said. "There's always strings attached to the federal dollar."
The county's rapid growth has administrators worried about the future of others like Frye and Grimes. The county's planning offices are lined with maps of new sewer lines and approved developments that promise a continuing strong demand for land and intense pressure on the area's low-income rental market.
People in Sterling Park worry about development too. "Additional growth is a foregone conclusion," says Supervisor Bird, who frets over the possible effects on Sterling's cherished community school system. "The question is, what can we do to keep, as much as we can, the ambiance we already have." CAPTION: Picture 1, A view of sprawling Sterling Park, the Loudoun County community whose residents now face problems that many of them moved to the county to get away from; Picture 2, Robert Lucas with his wife, Scarlett, and sons Brent, 10, and Brad, 5, outside their home in Sterling Park.; Picture 3, County Supervisor Andrew Bird, with his wife: "Can we take care of all the [world's] perceived needs?"; Picture 4, Oliver Frye, with his wife, Nellie: has a new sink and cabinets but can't afford to "put water in the house."; Picture 5, Blanche Grimes: "It just costs too much to heat all of her apartment . . . . "I don't mind a cold bedroom." Photos by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post