The eastern flank of Loudoun County is a patchwork, as the bright hues of freshly painted houses in new communities contrast with the subdued look of aging subdivisions.
But one of the differences between the old and new neighborhoods isn't as apparent to the eye: People in the long-established subdivisions don't pay for the services of their local volunteer fire and rescue departments unless they make a voluntary contribution at a pancake breakfast or a raffle. But those who live in the newer homes are required to pay fire and rescue fees each year, as a portion of their homeowners association dues.
Now, the newcomers are becoming so outraged about this system that many of them are simply refusing to send in the money. In the Sterling area alone, about 830 people are withholding the fees, according to the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department. As a result, department officials said, they are short about $25,000 this year and eventually may be forced to shutter some of their stations, leading to slower response times.
Officials with fire companies in Ashburn, Arcola and Leesburg are experiencing similar problems.
Even among those communities that are being charged for firefighting services, the fees often differ, the new residents complain.
"People are getting annoyed," said Raymond Ceresa, a Sterling lawyer who represents about three dozen homeowners associations in Loudoun. "A lot of the communities are sort of pointing fingers. A lot of the homeowners are like, `How come I'm paying $80 [a year] and they're only paying $60, and [some people] aren't paying anything?' "
For many years, the volunteer fire companies in Loudoun relied exclusively on charitable giving and the occasional turkey shoot or bingo night.
The current fee arrangement was adopted in 1987 by the Board of Supervisors. Many developers already had signed agreements with the county, promising that the subdivisions they proposed to build would pay firefighting fees, and the board decided to make the policy official. Residents of existing subdivisions in eastern Loudoun were exempted, as were most of the people living in the county's more rural, western end.
Thus the patchwork. Ashburn Farm has to pay. Sterling Park doesn't. Cascades must pay, but it is bracketed by older communities -- Sugarland Run to the east and Countryside to the west -- that do not.
And where there are fees, the amount varies according to the agreement the county reached with the subdivision's developer.
The residents of the newer subdivisions say they are being gouged. "It's a way of funding things outside the tax base and a way for the Board of Supervisors to stick it to the associations in order to appease old-time residents," said Alice Coffey, president of Potomac Woods, a subdivision of 75 houses whose residents have refused to pay. They owe a total of $6,750 in fees dating back three years.
The homeowners who are assessed the fee don't even get to write it off on their taxes, because homeowners association dues aren't tax-deductible.
The fire companies say they hate the system, too, because the county didn't provide for a way to enforce the policy. Instead, the fire and rescue volunteers are forced to go before a homeowners association in arrears and plead their case.
It's hard enough just keeping track of all the new homes being built, said Tom Lusk, who is in charge of collecting the fees for the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department.
"I'll see the buildings going up, and then I have to dig up the paperwork, find out what they're supposed to be paying," Lusk said.
"Quite honestly, I'll be the first to say the system's not equitable," he added. But "if the homeowners associations don't pay, I'm not going to be able to write the checks for those stations, and I'm going to have to close those stations."
For four months last year, the Cascades Community Association withheld its payments, although the 4,300 houses in Cascades represent about half the homes served by Lusk's department. The association's board of directors thought they were being overcharged. After Lusk appeared in uniform at an association board meeting and explained how vital the payments were, the directors changed their minds. In January, they turned over a check for the $250,000 they owed.
The homeowners association in Woodland Village, which has 87 homes, has never paid its fees and is about $30,000 in arrears, according to Lusk.
In Richland Forest, with 156 single-family homes, the homeowners association board was advised by the subdivision's management company to withhold the fees to force a lawsuit on the equity issue, said board member John Bischoff, and the association fell behind in payments to the tune of $18,000.
The board eventually changed its attitude and is now trying to work out a payment plan with the Sterling fire department, Bischoff said.
Coffey, the president of the Potomac Woods homeowners association, said that although she considers the fee system unfair, she has concluded that it is in the residents' best interests to pay.
Lusk has said his department will continue to provide equal service to all the subdivisions in the area, regardless of who owes how much. But Coffey isn't so sure about that, and she said she will bring up that issue when she tries to collect the balance due of $6,750 from the community's 75 homeowners.
"I'll just tell them I'd hate for it to come to a situation that [the fire department] doesn't have enough volunteers," Coffey said, "and in a split second they have to decide: Will they provide services to those who have donated money, or will they call another station?"