When Mary V. Mazujian was looking for a place to live in western Loudoun County 10 years ago, she was sold on a home that advertised "a view to the Blue Ridge that can't be beat."
Now, Mazujian says, when she looks to the west it is not the mountains that catch her eye, but bulldozers and other heavy equipment owned by her neighbor, John Virts.
In Mazujian's view, the equipment is ugly and illegal. In Virts' eyes, it is a way of life.
Virts owns an excavation company that he operates on a tract of land near Lovettsville that has been in his family for three generations. His business is one of countless others that have prompted the county government to tackle the question of what kind of commercial activity to allow in agricultural areas of Loudoun, a debate that has raised wrenching questions about who holds rightful claim over the natural beauty and rural tradition of western Loudoun.
The problem is that many businesses operating in rural parts of Loudoun are illegal under the county's zoning ordinances, which place sharp restrictions on commercial activity in these areas.
On the other hand, county officials say, the vast majority of the businesses, including plumbers, excavators and electricians, are used heavily by farmers, and are considered an essential part of the agricultural economy.
"No one wants to put these people out of business," said Supervisor Frank I. Lambert. " . . . They are part and parcel of what makes the whole thing tick out here."
Nonetheless, people such as Mazujian often find the businesses noisy and unattractive, and county officials say they are determined not to let businesses detract from the character of agricultural areas.
The county's efforts to reconcile these contradictory goals boiled over into controversy recently when a large crowd of angry business owners, many of whom are also farmers, attended a recent County Board meeting, concerned that the county zoning office was seeking to shut them down.
In fact, only two businesses, both gun shops, have been closed because of safety concerns, said Supervisor Thomas S. Dodson, chairman of a board committee studying the issue.
At a Monday meeting, the committee established a task force, which will include business owners, that will try to find a solution to the problem.
Dodson said the ideal solution "would see the rural character of the county protected, but would allow the small contractor to operate a legitimate business."
The hard part, Dodson said, will be agreeing on definitions. "At what point does a small business become a larger business?"
Also at issue is a broader question of who benefits from the county's rural space.
Some business people and supervisors have said that part of the current controversy stems from naive assumptions that newcomers to western Loudoun hold about life in the country.
"Somebody from Georgetown suddenly feels bucolic and moves to the country," said Supervisor Andrew R. Bird III.
When that person arrives, Bird said, he may be surprised to find that the rural life isn't necessarily always quiet or pretty, and that neighbors earn their living through a business. "When you are talking about people putting food on the table . . . the issue of what might be esthetically pleasing is less of a consideration."
Virts agreed. "My family has been here for six or seven generations. The neighbors who are complaining have generally been here less than 10 years. Not that that makes their rights any different, but it upsets me from time to time. They come out here and try to tell the people that made the county what it is, what to do."
But Mazujian, like residents who have complained elsewhere in the county, said that her neighbor's business has expanded in recent years. Although she is not eager to see people go out of business, Mazujian said, there must be limits. Virts' business has lowered the value of her property, she said, and diminished the quality of life for her and her neighbors.
"This is the country. That's why we came out here. Then, all of a sudden there is this ugly shed rearing its head," Mazujian said. " . . . You can't sit outside in the summer because the noise and fumes are so bad. It permeates everything."