Loudoun County's Board of Supervisors has held a series of closed meetings over the past seven months to debate the future of the county's ambitious and controversial growth controls.
Today, after their scheduled closed session, the supervisors could vote to settle some of the more than 100 lawsuits seeking to overturn building restrictions imposed by their predecessors last year.
One case set for consideration was brought on behalf of a large landowner who was also a campaign staff member for one of the Republican supervisors. Also poised for consideration, possibly today, is the issue of the county's restrictive rural zoning, which sharply reduces the number of homes that can be built in county's less-developed west.
Under Virginia law, local governing boards may meet in secret to discuss legal matters such as suits.
The strict land-use policies were implemented by the previous supervisors, who were elected on promises to control growth. The board approved the new rules last year after three years of work sessions, hearings and often-raucous public debate. But in November, county voters elected six GOP supervisors, many promising to roll back the limits. Settling the suits could in essence rewrite the rules that were enacted after a long public process.
Some of the plaintiffs are top campaign donors to the board's GOP majority, and in at least one case, supervisors have met with representatives from companies that were large donors and their attorneys to discuss potential settlements, supervisors said.
Advocates of the building curbs, such as James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), a three-term supervisor, said members of the new board are working to dismantle county land-use rules behind closed doors to avoid scrutiny.
"The previous board went through a three-year open process," Burton said. "Accepting any settlement offers that change the zoning is a back-door approach. It bypasses the public, and I think that's wrong."
Burton said it remains unclear whether a majority of supervisors will vote to settle key cases in an area of eastern Loudoun that stretches from Leesburg to south of Dulles International Airport and is known as the transition zone. That area has been eyed as a future location for tens of thousands of new homes.
It is also unclear whether a majority of supervisors will vote to settle suits challenging the county's rural zoning, which limits building in western Loudoun to one home per 10, 20 or 50 acres, depending on location. One approach being considered would ease those restrictions but not revert to the old rules that allowed one house per three acres.
Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), chairman of the board's land-use committee, who supports rolling back the building rules, said he would not comment on pending cases. But Snow criticized the previous board, asserting that supervisors ignored the wishes of many opponents in the run-up to passage of the building restrictions.
"I just don't believe they were genuine. I don't believe they did a service to the citizens of Loudoun County," Snow said. Although he would not discuss his expected votes, his views on such land-use cases should surprise no one, he said. "I'm a property rights individual. . . . There's no secret there," Snow said.
Lawyers representing Roma Dawson, who worked as Snow's campaign treasurer before November's election, have filed suit against the county challenging building restrictions on her family's 225 acres in southern Loudoun.
The Dawsons have an agreement to sell their property to Greenvest, the county's largest landowner and a major GOP campaign donor. Greenvest is also challenging many of the county's building restrictions.
Steve Calos, the former executive director of Common Cause in Virginia, said the circumstances surrounding the Dawson case present the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"People would look askance at the relationship in general and feel there may be a quid pro quo or something of the sort," Calos said.
Snow said he sees no conflict. "I haven't talked to her or any of the Dawsons about anything that's a legal issue," Snow said.
Dawson said she worked for Snow because she is a staunch Republican, not because she hoped to benefit.
"I didn't even know all of this was coming, so I had nothing to do with it," said Dawson, who said she has spoken to Snow since the election, but not about her case. "I was out of the loop."
Loudoun's fierce land debate has touched on everything from school boundaries, traffic snarls and rising real estate assessments to affordable housing, property rights and the Washington region's continued expansion.
The county's population has soared from 86,000 in 1990 to about 235,000 today.
A lawyer representing the litigation steering committee handling the legal challenges to the county rules declined to discuss possible settlements.
"I don't believe they did a service to the citizens of Loudoun County."