Waged in one of the most rural patches of land anywhere in Northern Virginia, the Nov. 3 Blue Ridge race for the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is focused on what all three candidates describe as the reckless pace of suburban growth.
The incumbent, a man first elected before Blue Ridge's youngest voters were born, for 20 years has been considered one of the board's most ardent opponents of growth. Yet in this race, five-term Supervisor James F. Brownell, a former Republican now running as an independent, is being cast by his opponents as an accomplice to the frenetic growth now sweeping Loudoun.
Those opponents -- Ben Fordney, an independent endorsed by local Democrats, and Republican Larry Johnson -- aren't just grasping for issues. Brownell acknowledges that the prospect of enormous new subdivisions for a place still known mostly for its small towns and dairy pastures is a leading concern for many of Blue Ridge's more than 4,100 registered voters.
Residents in the tiny town of Round Hill, for example, were traumatized last summer by the news that a large, nationally known developer had purchased large tracts of land around the town, apparently with plans to build a large subdivision. The revelation seemed to portend that the suburban growth that has transformed eastern Loudoun near Dulles International Airport was at the door of the rural west.
The spine of the Blue Ridge district, a mix of longtime farmers and commuting professionals, is the Rte. 7 corridor west of Leesburg. It includes the towns of Hamilton, Purcellville, and Round Hill, as well as Hillsboro on Rte. 9. The district stretches to the West Virginia border, and contains the foothills of the Blue Ridge.
Brownell, a 69-year-old farmer, is running for his sixth four-year term, this time as an independent, after a falling out with Loudoun GOP activists last year. Brownell's troubles with the party came partly over what the incumbent believed was the Republicans' excessive permissiveness toward growth -- the same issue for which he is now being criticized.
Although Brownell has been a vociferous critic of much of Loudoun's growth, he said Blue Ridge residents must understand the limits the county government faces in trying to stop it.
With the county situated in one of the country's strongest real estate markets, Brownell said, the pressures to grow are inevitable. Moreover, the Virginia state government has sharply limited the power of localities to deny rezonings and building permits, according to the incumbent.
The best that local officials can do, Brownell said, is to put in place a rigorous planning process, and to try to extract from developers as many roads, sewers and other public improvements, known as "proffers," as possible. In recent years, he said, Loudoun has done this.
"An incumbent has to defend what he's done," said Brownell, whose folksy, good-natured style has made him well-liked in county government circles. "I am proud of a lot of things I've done on the board . . . . We've done a very good job in this county as far as innovative planning."
Fordney, who must run as an independent because he is employed by the Voice of America, a federal agency, is more critical of Loudoun's planning process. Too often, said the 56-year-old vice mayor of Round Hill, the county is forced to frantically react to new development proposals rather than acting in advance to ensure that appropriate standards of housing density and transportation improvements are in place.
Furthermore, Fordney said, Brownell's low-key "call-me-when-you-need-me" style is ill-suited to the needs of a dynamic county.
Fordney, who lost a close race to Brownell four years ago, said he would act in a coordinating role with the western Loudoun towns and the county government to ensure that they are not overwhelmed by growth.
"Jim's style was adequate for the time," he said. "I don't think it's suitable for the problems we face now."
Fordney and Johnson have also raised the issue of Brownell's family ties to the development industry. Bruce Brownell, the incumbent's son, is a local builder who owns land around Round Hill.
Brownell has said that although he has never faced what would be defined legally as a conflict of interest while serving on the board, he has refrained from voting on any matters that give even the appearance of a conflict. He said that his son's activities certainly are no more of a conflict than the fact that Fordney holds an inactive real estate license.
Johnson, 49, is the chief executive officer of the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, and lives near Hillsboro. A conservative Republican, Johnson is critical of what he describes as his opponents' leanings toward excessive county spending on wasteful programs, and has emphasized his opposition to public school-based drug abuse, birth control and sex education programs.
On the growth issue, Johnson also preaches the less-is-better gospel of other candidates. The difference, said the North Carolina native, is that he would use his "leadership" and "management" skills to win Loudoun the broader powers from the state government to control growth that Northern Virginia officials have sought unsuccessfully for more than two decades.
"I'm a driver; I'm a doer," Johnson said. "I'm going to open up government to the people."
Brownell plans to spend from $7,000 to $8,000 for his campaign; Fordney about $5,000; and Johnson about $4,000. Supervisors next year will be paid $18,000.