School Board Chairman John A. Andrews II (Potomac) has asked Loudoun County supervisors to support the school system if it wants to condemn land owned by unwilling sellers as a way to obtain sites for new schools.
Under Virginia law, the School Board has the right to take land for schools if it pays the owner its fair market value. But without the support of the county's Board of Supervisors, Andrews said, the board cannot practically proceed.
"We are prepared . . . to look at this option if you give us backing, because you control the spending," he told the supervisors at a meeting Thursday. "Both boards have to be fully prepared to do what is necessary to get these sites."
It's not clear how the Republican-majority Board of Supervisors will respond. Some supervisors have complained that their predecessors were not sufficiently respectful of property rights when they slashed tens of thousands of new homes from the county's planning documents. The board's answer could indicate how it plans to deal with the infrastructure needs of the fastest-growing county in the nation.
The two boards met Thursday along with the Leesburg Town Council to discuss a 144-acre site on the southern edge of the town that school staff members have recommended buying for an elementary school and a high school. Members of all three groups, as well as some residents, are displeased with the site because it would require the expense of building roads. They have also complained the schools would be too close to the county's new jail.
The school system's planning director, Sam C. Adamo, said the system examined 15 other sites, but owners of several were not willing to sell for prices that fit the projects' budgets. By 2005, when the elementary school is scheduled to open, there will be a projected 527 more students in the Leesburg area than can be accommodated in existing buildings.
Condemnation is a sometimes controversial maneuver in which a government agency seizes land that an owner will not sell. Usually, the two sides go to court, and a jury determines a fair price. If government officials feel the price is too high, they can stop the process at any point, provided they pay the landowner's legal fees.
In an alternative version, the government can seize land by "quick-take," in which officials get possession of land swiftly but agree to pay whatever price is determined by a three-person panel.
Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac), vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said Thursday he would be willing to discuss the options. "I agree with Chairman Andrews that we need to start the discussion," he said.
Supervisor Mick Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run) said afterward that condemnation should be pursued only as a "last resort." He said he favored first a "longer and larger discussion of school size," hoping that by enlarging schools, fewer sites might be necessary. Staton would not say whether the school system has reached the point where condemnation is necessary in Leesburg, saying only that he looked forward to discussing the idea in a closed session between the two boards.
Although offers for individual plots of land can be discussed privately, Andrews said in an interview that elected officials have a "responsibility" to discuss publicly whether the county plans to pursue condemnation as a land strategy.
With more sites to find in coming years and rising land prices, School Board members said it was time to think about condemnation across the county.
"We're going to need something in our toolbox to help us with the developers," said Tom Reed (At Large).
The school system last attempted to condemn a parcel of land north of Leesburg in 2001. There was public opposition and little support from other elected officials, Adamo said, and ultimately the School Board worked out a deal to buy a different parcel from the same family.