Although the Leesburg Town Council voted last week to drop plans to annex about 2,700 acres near the airport, the owners of much of that property said they would press on with efforts to join the town so that they can develop the land.
The landowners are proceeding with their petition to the Virginia Commission on Local Government because they do not want to be subject to Loudoun County's strict new zoning regulations, said their attorney, Michael Banzhaf.
Under the Revised Comprehensive Plan adopted by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors last year, much of their land was designated agricultural, preventing most commercial or high-density residential development. If Leesburg annexed the land, it could be developed.
Banzhaf said his clients own about 56 percent of the 2.9 square miles -- about 1,850 acres -- at issue; the county owns much of the rest. Most of the land is undeveloped.
Under state law, an annexation petition by private citizens needs the support of 51 percent of the landowners in an area. The owners petitioning for annexation include a mix of private trusts and individuals: developer Salvatore Cangiano, Leesburg Airport Associates, William T. Dowdy, S.M. Hunter and AllFirst Trust Co.
"We want to develop it in consistency with the town plan," Banzhaf said.
Council members voted 4-3 last week to drop their petition to annex the land and to withdraw support for the landowners' petition. J. Frank Buttery Jr., who was appointed in July to fill the seventh seat on the town council and was widely seen as the swing vote, said he did not believe the time was right for annexation.
The vote appeared to cap a fiery year-long debate over how the town would grow in the next few years. The rejection was tempered by a clause that said the town had the right to "refile [another annexation petition] at any time."
Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd, who made opposition to annexation a platform of her election campaign in the spring, said she did not see a demand by major commercial enterprises to move to the town soon. She said she feared the annexed land could turn into residential developments that would be unpopular because of their proximity to Leesburg Executive Airport.
"If we were facing even a few rezoning applications to convert land in town into office use, I think the time would be right" for annexation, she said in an interview. "Our last two major rezoning applications failed because the town plan called for more office development than those landowners said the market would support."
The previous council saw things differently. After the landowners filed a petition for annexation in July 2001, the council filed its own petition in March of this year.
Both petitions were filed with the Virginia Commission on Local Government, a state agency that makes recommendations to a special court appointed by the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. That court is made up of three judges who do not usually rule on Loudoun County affairs.
The commission will examine the landowners' petition when it holds hearings in the Leesburg area March 13 and 14. Umstattd said a lawyer who advised the council told members that the private petition was greatly weakened by their withdrawal of support but that it was not crippled.
Ted McCormack, deputy director of the commission, said annexation can help a town get more tax revenue without raising taxes. "It can provide a town with vacant land for future development, additional tax revenue," he said. But towns must then extend sometimes costly services such as water and sewer utilities to annexed areas.
The previous council supported annexation as a way to grow the town's commercial base.
"We feel that it's very important to get a larger base of commercially zoned land so we can reduce the overall tax rate in the town," said Karen Jones, chairman of Leesburg's economic development commission. "What we're doing now is regrouping and figuring out what we wanted to do next."
She said there has been some talk of hosting town hall-style meetings on the issue. Much of the criticism on the previous council's annexation effort focused on the fact that most of its deliberations were held behind closed doors.
Robert J. Zoldos, a council member who voted for annexation, said the vote signaled that the town was neutral. But Umstattd said that "when the town formally withdrew its support it made a statement that it does not think annexation is a good idea for the town."