Chris Miller is about to pounce. His face is turning as red as the leaves on the trees he's trying so hard to save. The head of the Piedmont Environmental Council has just been asked -- again -- what traffic solutions his group will put forth now that he has helped persuade voters to turn down a tax for new roads and public transit.
"The same plans we've been saying for years," he says, sitting in the group's Berryville office before a regular meeting with his local troops. "What I'm trying to tell you is we're the majority." The vote taken Tuesday "is a reflection of where we've been for 10 years."
While Northern Virginia has been building and booming into its farthest rural reaches in the last decade, the environmental council has been the voice shouting into the wind to curb growth, stop replacing the countryside with subdivisions and strip malls and center construction on public transit.
On Tuesday, when the tax was rejected by a resounding 55 percent margin, many voters said no for those same reasons.
A fixture in rural Virginia since 1972, the environmental council emerged into the regional spotlight a decade ago -- along with Miller -- when it helped stop Walt Disney Co. from building a historical theme park in Prince William County. In the past three years, it has played a key role in transforming Loudoun County from a builders' haven to a national model for tempering sprawl.
Through those headline-making efforts and its day-to-day tracking of land-use decisions in central and Northern Virginia, it has become a leading voice on growth.
Now, the organization faces perhaps its biggest challenge: turning its victory at the polls into policy in developer-friendly Virginia, where not all of its allies against the transportation tax share its philosophy. Many voters cast no votes because they believe that Northern Virginia sends enough money to Richmond to pay for roads -- if only Richmond would send it back.
"The Disney issue allowed [the environmental council] to establish some credit," said Ed Risse, head of Warrenton-based Synergy Planning Inc., which has worked both with and against Miller. "This moves beyond to say this isn't just a bunch of people who like to protect certain interests."
But Risse said the next, and more difficult, step "is to say, 'This isn't another round. This is a fundamental change, and we've got to do something different.' "
Miller is quick to note that his group's plan concerning growth has been sent to all the major policymakers in the state. His thinks they simply needed the impetus to take it seriously. He said he hopes that push -- some would say shove -- came Tuesday.
"They had the entire political machinery in the state, and the voters said no," he said. "If that's not a mandate to change . . ."
Miller said he believes that developers who want to build houses in the hinterlands should pay for the roads, schools and other services those houses require. Ideally, however, he would prefer to see development rely on public transit, following the Arlington model of intense commercial, residential and retail around Metro stops.
Specifically, Miller said, state lawmakers ought to do three things right now. First, they should use the $12 million earmarked for a western bypass study to create incentives for development around the Vienna Metro station. Second, Miller said, he would like Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to signal his support for Loudoun's limited-growth plan to give more momentum and legitimacy to the slow-growth movement. And, he said, state officials should pass transit and telecommuting tax credits.
"If we pass those tax credits in this session, you will immediately see traffic improvements," Miller said. "I guarantee it."
The Piedmont Environmental Council is not a plant-your-own-beans, stitch-your-own-hemp-shirt environmental organization. Its budget last year was $2.7 million, and it is connected to wealthy landowners in 10 counties where it operates, including Loudoun and Fauquier and several in the Shenandoah Valley.
Miller has served as something of a godfather to the Virginia environmental movement, helping create several influential conservation groups -- the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Virginia's chapter of the League of Conservation Voters and the Prince William Conservation Alliance, among others.
Miller, an Alexandria native and St. Stephens graduate, has a law degree to go with his passion for smart growth. When Disney announced its plans in the early 1990s, Miller was 18 months out of the University of Michigan law school and working for Beveridge and Diamond, a D.C. environmental law firm. The environmental council tried to retain the firm, but Miller said his bosses wanted Disney's business instead. So he quit.
"I didn't want to work for a law firm that turned down a paying client on what I felt was the right side of the issues," said Miller, who joined the council not long afterward and became its president in 1996.
The changes taking place in Loudoun can be traced in part to a 1996 meeting in which the council tried to persuade previous county leaders to consider a plan to purchase development rights from landowners. They refused.
"At that point I went to . . . people who live and work in Loudoun County and said: 'If they're not even willing to consider these options, we might as well take them on and see what happens,' " Miller said.
The council helped field a slate of slow-growth county board candidates. Now, instead of getting shooed out of government offices, the group helps officials with an aggressive plan to protect open space and curb development.
If there is any inconsistency to Miller's anti-sprawl, pro-conservation mission it is that his home is in Arlington and his office is in Warrenton. He is, some critics are all too happy to point out, an example of the live-here, work-there suburbanite he often rails against.
Naturally, he disagrees.
"Our point has never been that everybody should . . . walk to work," Miller said. "We recognize as a matter of public policy that you can't create the impression that you can live anywhere you want and work anywhere you want and expect the public to make that a convenient relationship. I certainly don't expect the taxpayers of the region to pay for my lifestyle."