LOUDOUN COUNTY has hit on a code name for its embryonic public relations campaign to brand itself to outside corporations and investors: Project WOW. But the real Project WOW in Loudoun, the nation's fastest-growing county, is not about marketing and public relations. It's about big money and private land use, and it's approaching with hurricane force.
Last week, real estate developers filed 21 applications to change the county's comprehensive plan, the land-use blueprint that provides the fullest picture of how Loudoun will look 10 or 20 years from now. Taken together, the proposals are so far-reaching, and envision so much new construction, that they would transform swaths of a county that already has been remade in the past decade -- and that continues to grow by well over 1,000 people a month. If approved, these plans would add tens of thousands of homes and millions of square feet of offices and stores, and probably ensure that the nation's fastest-growing county retains that title, or remains a strong contender, for many years to come. In other words: WOW.
It is easy to lament all this, both in general and in the particulars. Already, traffic in Loudoun is a headache, school construction can barely keep up, taxes are soaring, and county services are strained -- to say nothing of the aesthetics of a landscape being torn up by bulldozers. Let there be no illusions: Continued explosive growth will make all this worse. What's more, some of the current proposals emit the pungent aroma of conflict of interest. In one case, a major developer stands to benefit from roads, sewers and water lines whose placement and routes he may have had a hand in planning while serving on public boards and commissions. In addition, the Republican majority of the county Board of Supervisors, which will cast the key votes on these proposals, was the beneficiary of $18,000 in campaign contributions made by just one of the development companies, a firm called Greenvest, which will now come before the board as an applicant. That's serious cash in Loudoun politics.
But the Washington region is an economic dynamo, generating jobs, new businesses and commensurate demand; it is growing and will continue to grow. It already suffers from a housing shortage -- witness the staggering run-up in home prices in recent years. If Loudoun tries to shunt away growth, it will simply be deflected elsewhere -- probably to the west -- and those new residents will then flood back into and through Loudoun as commuters.
Still, there is a major role here for politicians and planners. Faced with such a deluge of new building proposals, they had better cut the best deal possible, and do an intelligent job of channeling the growth that's coming. Some of the developers themselves (including Greenvest), mindful that the county cannot be saddled with all the costs of new growth, have proposed what amounts to a surtax on the homeowners who would occupy the new neighborhoods. That would pay for some portion of the new roads and schools -- just how much is not yet clear, but it bears watching. We also question the piecemeal approach to amending the county's blueprint for growth that is implicit in the 21 proposals. The previous Board of Supervisors, whose slow-growth majority was voted out of office last year, developed the blueprint as a truly comprehensive document, with extensive public input. By considering these proposed amendments one by one, the new, more pro-growth board obscures the overall impact. Better to update the blueprint and set Loudoun's overall direction first than to leave county residents of the future gazing at thousands of new houses, mouthing the word "WOW."