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

Update: I’ve added the two parts together in this article.
*** Note: Special thanks to Loudoun County Treasurer Roger Zurn for some facts and figures.

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 the 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.

Today, Loudoun County has a population of over 210,000, the county budget now stands at 877 million, Democrats control the Board of Supervisors, there is very little commercial activity, and the economy is lifeless. How did this happen?

From 1992 through 1999, voters put Republicans in control of the Board of Supervisors and with it an unprecedented expansion in our commercial tax base occurred. Businesses viewed Loudoun County as a good place to do business, and with it came jobs, and a lessening reliance on the average homeowner to pay an unfair share of the taxes. Unfortunately with this unparalleled growth came traffic and the need to build schools at a rate few counties have ever experienced.

So in 1999 the Democrats brought forth a slogan that carried the fancy of the electorate. The term “Smart Growth” was bandied about. Oh the savior of all the evil that has been wrought upon us will now be changed thanks to “Smart Growth”. People felt if they voted for the “Smart Growth” candidate, the traffic, the need for more and more schools and with it the constant changing of school boundaries, and the increasing taxes that we all experienced, would just fade away. Sensing the ground swell, many Republicans ran as Smart Growth candidates. Of course, no candidate ever defined what Smart Growth was but people bought into it.

By 2003 the bubble had burst on Smart Growth. Why? Because today
we now know what that means to average citizens. Let’s take a look at the situation.

The emphasis is now on the rural economy rather than on spurring economic development. Transportation is now based solely on mass transit, with the emphasis on transporting people to urban location jobs rather than improving the average persons commute to their job in Loudoun County through better road networks. More importance is placed on protecting the trees and creeks than protecting ones investment in their homes and land. A higher value has been given to government protecting the view shed rather than giving law enforcement the tools necessary to protect the citizen. Horses and trails rank higher than the education of our young people.
What has Smart Growth wrought? Government spending is up 78% from 1999. This is with a population increase of 30%. So Smart Growth really meant that County spending will grow quite smartly.

Fueled by residential assessments up over 106% during the last three years the Board increased General Government spending by 54%. Education spending by 66%. But lo and behold Parks and Recreation spending is up by 84%. Debt service doubled so that nearly 10 cents of every tax dollar. A new Transportation Department was created (which is pretty funny given the Board’s commitment to doing as little as possible to improving roads since, in the Smart Growth way of thinking, better roads only brings more people; perish that thought.). Cost to taxpayers: $3.8 million. After all a better bureaucracy makes for better commutes.

The magical feather in the Smart Growth movements cap was the government funded Perpetual Development Rights (PDR). PDR’s are a purchase instrument that allows development rights for a parcel of land to be bought and sold, while the owner retains ownership of the property. They sell their right to develop the land. There are certain things they can do with the land like build a country inn, but on the whole the PDR is supposed to be a tool to limit growth. The Board of Supervisors lead by Republican Scott York spent $8 million dollars acquiring development rights to land (mostly in the agricultural western portion of the county) at the same time they were zoning the opportunity to develop that same land out of existence. 1 house on a 25 or 50 acre lot guarantees that no residential development will occur. The fact that tax dollars were buying up rights to land that was not even for sale was what really chapped the ass of traditional Republicans, Liberitarians, and a few Democrats. When a new board supervisor’s spouse was found to have received PDR benefits the already skeptical public understood that the fix was probably in.

The government financed PDR program was what finally woke up the overwhelming GOP electorate (Bush carried the county 42,453 to 30,938 in 2000). Republicans demanded answers from York who had formed a working majority with other Board Democrats. They got an icy response to the tune of “Fuck Off”. The party fractured over the primary process this year, with York holding out for an open primary where anyone who arrived a the precinct could vote, but Republicans opted for a convention nomination process. York resigned the party to run as an independent, rather than loose the nomination at the convention. This makes for a 3 way race for chairman, and a confused election season on the Republican side. The Democrats are overjoyed, as they now have a chance in a three way general election.

So when the Smart Growth bandwagon arrives in your area think hard before jumping on.

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