After three years, hundreds of hours of public meetings and countless clashes over setbacks, buffers and densities, the dozens of diehards gathered in the County Government Center in Leesburg on Monday finally witnessed the moment they had been waiting for.
In a 7 to 2 vote, Loudoun County supervisors approved an overhaul of the county's zoning ordinance, the dense land-use manual that governs what can be built in the county and where.
But far from bringing closure, the vote offered supporters and detractors an opportunity to cast the board's decision in the starkly contrasting terms that have characterized much of the county's growth debate. Some saw promises fulfilled, and others promised to reverse the vote in court or at the ballot box.
"The battle for the future of Loudoun County is, I believe, just beginning," said Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Mercer).
County officials, seeking to rebut accusations that they are trying to stop growth, noted that the new zoning rules will allow construction of about 100,000 more homes in Loudoun in coming decades. That's about 80,000 fewer than would have been allowed under the old law. Loudoun has about 73,000 homes.
Backers praised the passage of the new law as a victory for the environment and for the county's politics.
"Here was a citizenry, an electorate deeply dissatisfied with the existing order of things," said Valerie Kelly, a slow-growth activist, "mourning the ever-increasing loss of its community identity . . . the wanton bulldozing of its historical heritage and dreading the likelihood of a future of horrendous tax hikes to pay for all of that.
"And, lo and behold, to its rescue comes a brave and dedicated bunch of elected officials who step up to the plate and methodically do what has to be done, with full public disclosure and virtually unlimited public input to boot," she said.
That's not how Jack Shockey, a landowner and president of the pro-development Citizens for Property Rights, sees it. He accused the board of passing a "special interest downzoning" to please protectionists and wealthy activists.
"When the lawsuits are being heard and won in the courtrooms, please don't even try to tell us you somehow were doing this for our own good or we just don't understand," Shockey said.
"This Board of Supervisors has failed to identify what has been the change in circumstance since 1993 [when the old ordinance was written] that would cause such a needed change," he added. "Where is the study regarding affordable housing in this county, and where is any kind of fiscal impact study in regards to this zoning ordinance?"
The new ordinance sharply reduces the number of homes that can be built per acre on a 300-acre swath of western Loudoun. Under the old rules, one house could be built on every three acres in most of rural Loudoun. The new rules require 10, 20 or 50 acres per home, depending on the location and whether the homes are clustered to preserve open space.
The county also voted to prevent construction near a broad network of waterways and floodplains and instituted a wide range of other environmental rules.
The supervisors made slight adjustments to the zoning ordinance before passing the 944-page document. They reduced the minimum property size required for building a cluster of homes in southwestern Loudoun from 100 acres to 60 acres. They also grandfathered several dozen applicants. Both moves were intended to buttress the ordinance before expected legal challenges.
Several people planning to run in November elections criticized the new rules and the supervisors.
Planning Commissioner Alfred P. Van Huyck, a Democrat, announced that he would seek the board chairman's job and rapped Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) for moving too slowly to adopt the zoning ordinance.
"It was just a lack of leadership and management skill," Van Huyck said. "The chairman didn't have the program ready to go."
Robert Gordon, a lawyer and former planning commissioner who is considering a run for board chairman, said the supervisors had "lost the necessary balance between respect for property rights and investment expectations and protection of the environment." Gordon predicted that "many problems will surface in the coming months as this ordinance is implemented."
Former supervisor Larry Beerman, who headed the county's finance and government services committee during the previous board's term and is considering a run for chairman, said supervisors have "focused on land use to the exclusion of everything else." He said officials should be doing more to prop up what he termed Loudoun's "waning" commercial and industrial sector.
"The downzoning may very well have been overreaching," Beerman said. But he said it was "too early" to offer specific alternatives to the board's zoning policies. "You've got to get back to Business 101. . . . Right now, I dare say, the welcome sign's not out."
York, a home improvement contractor, said the new ordinance would allow the county to manage growth better and would help reduce high costs associated with breakneck development, such as building new schools.
"We have set a new direction for Loudoun County," said York, who is running for reelection. He said the board took the time it needed for an open, public process while tackling complex issues.
Supervisors Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) and J. Drew Hiatt (R-Dulles) were the dissenters. Hiatt, part of a slate of eight candidates elected in 1999 on promises to curb growth, said his colleagues went too far in curbing building in western Loudoun and didn't do enough to help suburban residents in eastern Loudoun.
"We had a radical downzoning in the west and the transition area, and the bulk of the density is still in the east," Hiatt said. "What they wanted was the quality of life everybody else got in the west. . . . What I would have supported was a more balanced approach."