Smart Growth In Loudoun County, VA (Or How To Piss Off All Of The People All Of The Time) – Part I

Note: I’ve been working on this post on and off for a week, but I have yet to finish. Rather than hold off posting it I figured that I would split it into two pieces

1) Background – This post
2) Analysis – Read it here

Here is Part I – The background…

Loudoun County is the second fasted growing county in the nation according to recent Census numbers. Population in the county has exploded over the last 10 years as the telecom and technology industries rise fueled the population explosion of the Washington DC metro areas Northern Virginia suburbs. The rise of the outer ring suburbs is not unique to the Washington area, similar population and business relocation dispersion patterns have occurred in Houston, San Diego, Denver, Los Angeles, as well as most other Sunbelt metro areas. The current population estimate is 211,000. Loudoun County covers 517 square miles.

Loudoun County is somewhat unique in that it is in effect a suburb to a suburb (Tysons Corner, VA). Tysons Corner has more office space than every east coast city except New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, DC. Many of the residents of Loudoun County work in the Tysons/Dulles Airport corridor (a stretch of 12 miles that includes the major tech centers of Northern Virginia). Residents of Loudoun County commute to downtown Washington DC and Montgomery County, MD.

Development of the formerly agricultural Loudoun County was planned. Area-wise the county encompasses 517 square miles, yet 80% of the population has been squeezed into 15% or the counties eastern edge. All of this pre planning envisioned a slow and steady growth rate utilizing such staples as planned communities, mixed use development and developer proffers. The county succeeded in attracting headquarters of such heavyweight companies of the Internet boom as MCI/Worldcomm and AOL. Everything was turning up roses for the county government as the tax base increased by addition and the market run up of real estate prices.

If you are curious about the population density patterns in Loudoun County here are two images that may be helpful: Image 1 and Image 2

A strange thing happened on the way to fast growing prosperity – the spread of the population influx could not be limited to the eastern portion of the county. New house development ate up every last inch of the eastern zoned residential areas of the county and started pushing westward into farm lands and country manor estates. Western residents of the county who generally where older and wealthier than their eastern neighbors used every political device they could to maintain a power base in the county. Loudoun County is home the Middleburg – a ritzy county estate burg that is home to old money and celebrities like Robert Duvall and Lynda Carter. The westerners made sure that representation on the Board of Supervisors was geographically oriented and that the rural areas of the county had at least the opportunity of keeping a working majority on the board.

Even with the political and financial means to thwart the westward expansion of the suburban sprawl, the power of the real estate market mania was too hard for land owners in western Loudoun County to resist. Many owners sold and developers were willing to build McMansions on larger parcels as required by zoning regulations. Supply and demand was giving owners of small farms a chance to cash in on the boom. State law as it related to counties in Virginia didn’t look very promising for Loudoun County, Read this article about the Dillon rule to find out why.

Politics makes strange bedfellows and in the last election cycle special interest groups funded by the aforementioned wealthy residents of the Middleburg area and outsiders made stopping sprawl the ONLY issue in the election. They used PAC names like Voters to Stop Sprawl and Piedmont Education Council, but the magnitude of the money and advertising ensured that every candidate from both parties had to run as a smart growth candidate to have a shot at winning. Long story short, the smart growth candidates (mostly moderate Republicans) took over the board and chairman positions. Rather than paying lip service to the growth issue they set about to implement all of the policies that the PAC money (which they gladly took) was paying for.

January 6, 2003 Loudoun County supervisors adopted the region’s most ambitious and controversial set of building restrictions making good on their campaign promises of “smart growth”.

This Washington Post article summarizes the restrictions. From the article:

The new zoning ordinance, approved 7 to 2 yesterday, sharply reduces the number of houses that can be built per acre in a 300-square-mile area of western Loudoun. Until now, the county has allowed one home per three acres in most of that area, which spurred the development of large lot subdivisions dotted with high-end homes.

Now, developers need 10, 20 or 50 acres to build one home, depending on the location and whether new homes are clustered together to preserve the bulk of the land as open space. In an attempt to make up for potential decreases in land values and to insulate the county against lawsuits, officials added a list of new economic ventures, such as country inns and rural retreats, that landowners could develop in lieu of subdivisions.

Later the Post railed against density limits as a tool to stop sprawl in this article. They noted that developers and consumers would just bypass a county implementing such measures. Remember this is the Washington Post bashing the plan, not a noted sanctuary for libertarians or conservatives.

All of this leads us to the most interesting part of the story. How a majority Republican board of supervisors concocted a plan to use tax dollars to buy the development rights to land in the agricultural western part of the county, and how the resulting fallout split the Republican party for the upcoming elections. It’s a story full of deceit and shame, but it will have to wait for Part II of the series.

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