As supervisor from a part of Loudoun County eyed as the Washington region's next generation of suburbs, Stephen Snow (R) has been an outspoken proponent of spurring growth.
Last week, Snow, who represents the area near Dulles International Airport, took his advocacy to a new level, successfully campaigning for a powerful new job overseeing the water and sewer lines crucial for greater development.
Snow's election as chairman of Loudoun's Sanitation Authority board, which manages existing lines and supervises the installation of new ones, has prompted questions about how public utilities should be governed in a county that has grown faster than any other in the United States since 2000.
It is rare in Virginia for a local elected official to head a sewer authority. Typically, officials make appointments to authority boards in an effort to insulate them somewhat from politics.
"Most authorities in the state are governed by nonpolitical individuals," said John Sloper, general manager of the Prince William County Service Authority, where no supervisors serve on the authority's governing board. "The purpose of the authority is to hopefully keep the politics out of the decision-making process."
Sloper said appointing public officials to an authority board can blur those lines. "Instead of an independent board, you've got an overlap there," Sloper said.
In Loudoun, the issue of stretching water and sewer lines is at the center of a long-running feud over the pace of development. The county's population has jumped from 86,000 in 1990 to more than 247,000 today. Proponents praise the boom as a vital part of a healthy free-market economy. Opponents lament the transformation of open lands and say Loudoun taxpayers are being left with increasing debt to cover new schools and other expensive services.
A majority of Loudoun supervisors, led by Snow and his Republican colleagues, voted last year to allow the extension of utility lines throughout a 23,000-acre swath of the county between Loudoun's suburban east and its more rural western reaches. Supervisors make the policy decisions on which broad areas can have public utilities, and many of the specifics are hashed out by the authority.
Advocates for growth on the Board of Supervisors cited their concerns about public health and uncertainty over future ground water levels, with some saying the move did not mean they would allow more homebuilding in the area. But within months, the board allowed some increased building there, and development firms applied for permission to build a large number of new homes, including a 15,000-unit project that would be the largest in county history. Those applications are under consideration.
Snow, who had been appointed to Loudoun's Sanitation Authority board by fellow supervisors shortly after taking office in January 2004, said he sought the job as chairman of the authority board to ensure high-quality sewer and water service and to improve public outreach. Members of previous Boards of Supervisors, including slow-growth advocate Scott K. York (I), the board chairman, also have served on the authority board.
"I'm here to make sure this organization takes care of our citizens in a first-rate fashion," Snow said. "All citizens should have the right to clean water and a reliable sewage system."
Snow said he also wants to help bring sewer lines to businesses that do not have access to them now and would work with his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to create special taxing districts to help make that happen.
Under such an arrangement, the Sanitation Authority could fund some extension projects, he said. Generally, the authority relies on developers and private firms to put up the money for such projects.
The authority also has proposed a sharp increase in the fees it charges developers to link to new utility lines. Some inside and outside the authority said Snow's role as an advocate of increased building could lead him to make decisions that are not in the authority's best financial interests.
"I think it's leaving the fox to guard the henhouse," said John Rocca, who served as authority chairman for a year before losing the job to Snow on Thursday. "This is a business. It's not a political board. . . . Now politics are becoming a part of this business."
Snow said the sanitation authority "should not be used as a political organization, and it will not be."
Leonard S. "Hobie" Mitchel, a developer who sits on the authority board, was among those who voted for Snow.
"I don't think it's politicized. They both requested to be chairman. And it's as simple as that," Mitchel said.