In Loudoun, one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, development, economic growth and transportation are again at the forefront of elections.
Loudoun has led among rapidly growing jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, with recent census data showing that the county’s population has surged to more than 300,000 in the past decade — a period also marked by controversy over development projects, overcrowded schools, congested roads and the rising costs of supporting a growing community.
As residents prepare to choose Tuesday from among 20 candidates vying for nine seats on the county Board of Supervisors, Democratic and Republican officials predict that voters will draw from Loudoun’s political history to help decide its future — although the parties differ in their visions of what the future should look like.
Mike Turner, chairman of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee, said he hopes voters will remember what prompted them to sweep a Democratic majority of slow-growth candidates into office in 2007.
In that election, allegations of impropriety and public corruption sparked a backlash after federal authorities ramped up an investigation of pro-growth county leaders who had received sizable donations from real estate developers. The federal probe, which resulted in no indictments of Loudoun officials, followed an investigation by The Washington Post that detailed how major land-use decisions in Loudoun were controlled by a small, tightly connected network of county officials and developers.
“From 2003 to 2007, you had a Republican-controlled board that basically was doing what the developers were telling them to do, and there was uncontrolled growth,” Turner said. “Now, for the last four years, we’ve struggled with badly overcrowded schools and a constant pressure to raise taxes. Transportation wasn’t helped by the growth. For four years, the Democratically controlled board has tried to deal with that.”
If a Republican majority is elected to the board this year, “we’re right back in 2003,” Turner said.
Mark Sell, chairman of the Loudoun County Republican Committee, sees it differently. Voters have not been impressed with the current board’s economic development record, he said.
“The current board hasn’t kept taxes low; it hasn’t done a good job of bringing businesses into the area,” Sell said. “It hasn’t been very responsive to the public’s will.”
Sell cited the debate over Loudoun’s draft Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance as an example of the board’s failure to consider residents’ concerns.
The ordinance, which would have made Loudoun the first jurisdiction to voluntarily adopt environmental requirements outlined by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, drew opposition from residents who said that the land-use restrictions would have a negative effect on Loudoun’s rural economy and infringe on homeowners’ rights. The board voted in May to suspend discussion of the ordinance until after the state had determined local requirements associated with its watershed implementation plan.
The debate over the ordinance highlighted the board’s “lack of responsiveness” to residents, Sell said, adding that if a Republican majority is elected, community members “can expect smarter, smaller and more professional government.”
Even as the board has worked to moderate the county’s growth over the past four years, controversy over proposed development projects has been evident. In July 2010, the board signed off on a plan for Kincora Village Center, a $2 billion mixed-use development at routes 7 and 28. When supervisors cast their 5-to-4 vote, the county boardroom was filled with frustrated residents holding signs that said “You were elected to say no to unnecessary development” and “Taxpayer relief, not more taxes.”
Sell says that smart growth is necessary and that Loudoun needs to attract businesses to increase the tax base and lessen residents’ financial burden.
“People know that there were several businesses that considered locating to Loudoun that ultimately located elsewhere because of some of the policies that the current board has,” he said. “Voters will recognize that Republicans are friendly to bringing in businesses that will provide jobs to the residents.”
Turner expressed concern that the patterns in the 2003-07 board term could be repeated, noting that several Republican candidates are backed by local developers and other companies that do business before the board.
“We need people who are really going to roll up their sleeves and actually serve the community,” Turner said. “We need not to hand Loudoun County back over to the developers.”
Sell said that Republican candidates are not “for sale.”
“Our candidates have a wide breadth of experience, and I think that businesses see that and they trust that,” Sell said. “I don’t think any of our candidates are beholden to any industry or business particularly. Our candidates will do what they think will best serve the residents of Loudoun.”