It's the hottest trend in Loudoun politics: Candidates for supervisor are lining up to pledge not to take money from development interests.
As candidates campaign for the November general election, many have concluded that voters are sick of rapid development--and tired of development interests trying to influence the outcome with thousands of dollars in contributions.
There's just one problem. Nobody who has taken this no-developer-money pledge seems to agree on what constitutes "development money."
For one candidate, real estate agents count as development interests. For another, they don't. One candidate says that the project manager of the Islamic Saudi Academy--a large private school planned for Ashburn--counts as a development interest. Another candidate says the manager is not a developer.
Some candidates say they have to look at donations on a case-by-case basis, and the definitions of off-limits money come with lots of fine print.
Supervisor Eleanore C. Towe (D-Blue Ridge) has said that she won't take money from developers or special interest groups and that for her, a real estate broker does not necessarily fall into one of those groups. "If there's someone who is a Realtor and is my constituent who I represent . . . and we understand that I am representing them as a supervisor and I know that there are no strings attached, fine," she said.
Mark Tate, the Republican nominee for supervisor in Mercer, sent out a news release in June saying that he would not take money from the "developer community." Meanwhile, he has received donations from two Realtors and the wife of a Fairfax County office park developer. Tate said in an interview that his pledge applied only to residential developers.
"I've taken the pledge not to have taken money from development interests, and I haven't done that," Tate said. "Everybody I've taken money from shares my vision for managed growth in Loudoun County. . . . I've just been trying to use the smell test. If it smells like a developer, I won't take it."
More than anything else, candidates say they are trying to avoid the appearance that they would not act in the county's best interests--that "developer" money would cloud their judgment. But those in the development industry think the pledges have gotten out of hand.
"It makes it seem like developers are second-class citizens or that they're doing something wrong or illegal," said Robert Gordon, a land-use lawyer who has represented residential and commercial developers. "It just seems like, 'What have we done wrong?' We invested in the county. We bought the land. We're following the rules."
To see how difficult the issue has become, take the case of Anthony Nozzoli.
Nozzoli is the project manager of the controversial Saudi Academy, which was approved by supervisors last year after much community opposition and extended debate, and he is responsible for coordinating the school's construction.
Is he a developer?
Supervisor Scott K. York (R-Sterling), who is running on a slow-growth platform and is refusing developer dollars, said no. Nozzoli is listed as a benefactor of a fund-raiser York is holding Saturday.
"I don't consider a school developers," York said. "They're not land speculators. They're providing services. I don't consider them developers."
York said off-limits donors are "those that are in the development community and real estate community as well as those that work for those fellows and those that come out and do land speculation for the purposes of making money."
Towe accepted money from Nozzoli, too. After a reporter inquired about the donation, she said she would call him and "ask him right out whether he is considered part of the development community." Towe later said she was going to return the money because she said she "did not want a hint of impropriety."
Nozzoli also donated to Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer), who has taken a pledge not to accept development money and returned the check.
Burton said that residents are better served by supervisors who do not accept campaign cash from development interests.
"These contributions come with strings attached," Burton said. "When interest groups appear before the board for decisions which benefit them financially, I think we should deal with those interest groups at an arm's length relationship."