After more than three years of debate, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the development of the Salamander Resort and Spa, giving billionaire Sheila C. Johnson the authority to go ahead with her 120-room resort on the edge of Middleburg.
By a vote of 8 to 1, the board approved a special-exception permit for Salamander Hospitality -- Johnson's company -- to allow more than 600 one-way vehicle trips per day in and out of the resort. The developer has projected that average traffic volume would be closer to 700 trips per day.
The company withdrew a controversial request to increase the number of special events -- such as car shows or other activities that would draw large crowds -- beyond 10 per year.
A spirited public hearing was held Nov. 29, but the board's approval came after little public discussion Tuesday, a subdued climax for a project that has drawn sometimes bitter opposition. Residents fear Middleburg's small-town character will be compromised by heavy traffic and noise, and environmentalists have said a large development would damage the Goose Creek watershed.
"This has been the most divisive issue that has faced the community in decades. . . . Whether or not the wounds can be healed will depend on both sides," said Supervisor Jim G. Burton (I), whose Blue Ridge District includes Middleburg. He cast the lone dissenting vote.
Burton said his opposition centered primarily on the way the project had mushroomed -- from the 40-room inn originally proposed to a resort with a 120-room hotel, a 160-seat restaurant, a 26,000-square-foot spa and 11,000 square feet of conference and meeting space.
"I would not be surprised to see those plans change again," he said.
Most of the supervisors applauded Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, and her staff for their willingness to work with the community to address pedestrian safety and traffic concerns, and they lauded the proposed resort as a stellar example of rural economic development.
"This is going to be a great project for the town of Middleburg, for the region . . . and for the nation," said Vice Chairman Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac).
Once it is fully operational, the resort could bring the county $1 million in annual revenue, according to estimates from the developer. The town of Middleburg predicts a 50 percent increase in its general fund revenue and a 40 percent increase in utility revenue.
"We hope you can get this thing built as soon as possible so we can start collecting this tax revenue," said Supervisor Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run). "It's my pleasure to be in support of this."
In July, the Middleburg Town Council approved the resort and spa on a narrower vote, 4 to 3, but not before last-minute negotiations involving the town, the county and the developer.
Under their agreement, Salamander Hospitality will design and build a $4 million wastewater treatment plant for the town, and Middleburg will extend water and sewer lines to the site and eventually annex the 252-acre property. The Town Council is scheduled to initiate the annexation process at tonight's monthly meeting.
Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hospitality, said he would make a presentation at the Town Council meeting and provide the first glimpses of interior and exterior designs and "give people an idea of what a real luxury resort is."
He said he would also present an alternative proposal to relocate the resort closer to the center of Middleburg but still within the property. Devadas said the alternative design would spare about 16 acres of trees and put more space between the buildings and the resort's neighbors. He said the proposal would be up for public comment tonight.