A diverse majority of Loudoun County supervisors voted last night to support far-reaching growth controls that could help shape development in one of the last remaining open spaces in the Washington region.
The dramatic 5 to 4 vote ran counter to the expectations of some landowners and developers who in November 2003 helped elect a Republican majority on the county's Board of Supervisors with the hope of avoiding such controls. The decision also represented a vigorous response to a March ruling by Virginia's Supreme Court, which threw out a set of tighter building limits on a technicality.
The proposed development restrictions -- backed by two Republicans, two independents and the lone Democrat on the Board of Supervisors -- would prevent the construction of tens of thousands of houses worth billions of dollars in a scenic expanse that constitutes the western two-thirds of the county. A final vote is still required.
The proposal would allow builders to more than double the 9,200 houses the county says are now in the area. A competing proposal that could have more than tripled the number of houses in western Loudoun was turned aside yesterday. Current rules allow as many as 55,000 houses there.
The plan endorsed yesterday would replace the three-acre-per-house zoning requirement that covers much of western Loudoun. Landowners would start with a requirement of an average of 20 acres per house in northwestern Loudoun and 40 acres in southwestern Loudoun. They could build twice as many if they follow guidelines for maintaining open space.
The plan's most unusual feature is the introduction of an option to rezone property in exchange for contributions for roads, schools and other costly public projects. Such arrangements generally have not been employed in western Loudoun. Landowners willing to provide those funds could, with county permission, build a house every 7.5 acres in the north or every 15 acres in the south. The plan also allows landowners to sell individual parcels more easily than under the overturned restrictions and gives families rights to subdivide.
The vote came after more than four months of debate that pitted property rights against the county's planning responsibilities. And the arguing is not done. Although the vote was a key step in the process, it was not the final one. In the next several months, supervisors and others will work out precise legal language, hold public hearings and fulfill other state requirements for public notice. A final vote probably will come near the end of the year.
It also coincided with the U.S. Census Bureau's release today of figures charting the torrid pace of Loudoun's growth. Between April 2000 and July 2004, 24,755 homes were built in Loudoun, the third-fastest construction boom in the nation, according to census estimates.
"Growth is inevitable. You and I can't stop it," said Supervisor Jim Clem (R-Leesburg), who helped craft the plan endorsed yesterday. He and Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) were swing votes on the plan. "We have an opportunity here to manage it, and you have to look at all the issues affected by it," including everything from traffic and budget issues to water supplies and sewage disposal, Clem said.
Clem and other backers of the plan said it is better for landowners than the restrictions passed in 2003, which required 10, 20, or 50 acres, depending on location. "You're going to be able to develop your property," Clem said.
But Jack Shockey, president of the pro-development group Citizens for Property Rights, said the plan would bring lawsuits.
"I think these Republicans have forgotten that they are Republicans," Shockey said. Supervisors who support the restrictions are harming landowners, he said. "I think it has something to do with their upbringing. Maybe they weren't brought up properly. I was taught not to steal from somebody else."
Supervisor Stephen Snow (R-Dulles), who has sought to increase housing construction in the county and who opposes the plan endorsed last night, pledged to help the legal fight against the county.
"I will be persistent in making sure that any lawyers that come up against this board are successful in their endeavors, because we are being irresponsible again in rushing through this thing, not bringing facts up," said Snow, who did not indicate how he would assist.
Snow slammed his GOP colleagues who supported the plan. "It's a sad day," he said. "We came in with six Republicans who all had literature that said we'd protect property rights, and now we're down to four."
Waters bristled at questions about her Republican credentials, saying perhaps they came from discomfort at a strong conservative woman.
"I went to the Republican National Convention and helped write the party platform. People in the Republican Party can have diverse views," said Waters, a former executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum. Her focus is cutting the tax burden and keeping Loudoun's character. "I want to continue the broad options for people who want to live in the suburban east, the towns, and the rural west."
Loudoun's population doubled in the 1990s, and it has grown faster than any other county in the United States since 2000. But the western area of the county remains relatively undeveloped, with farms, historic settlements and scattered groupings of new, high-end houses linked by patches of fresh asphalt and more than 300 miles of gravel roads.
In March, Virginia's Supreme Court threw out the 2003 building limits, which were adopted after three years of debate. The court unanimously concluded that a required newspaper advertisement published by the county was incomplete and misleading because it did not state precisely enough which parts of Loudoun would be subject to the rules.
Proponents of the new plan on the county board have quipped that they are planning the "mother of all advertisements" this time around.