- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

LEESBURG, Va. — The battle cries are familiar in America’s fastest-growing county: Those seeking slower growth want to protect the area’s rural heritage, while the other side decries “snob zoning” that keeps new homeowners from getting their piece of the American Dream.

But in Loudoun County, where the population has increased from 86,000 in 1990 to 170,000 in 2000 to 222,000 in 2003, the growth wars have been particularly hard fought, fueled most recently by a Virginia Supreme Court ruling that tossed out some growth limits in the more rural western part of the county.

Some western Loudoun residents, fed up with the county board’s pro-growth stance, have talked about seceding from Loudoun County and creating a new county that could resume earlier efforts to slow development.

Although much of Northern Virginia has dealt with rampant growth in recent years, Loudoun County stands out for several reasons.

First is the sheer speed of the growth. It has grown faster than any other county in the country since 2000, according to a Census Bureau report last year.

Though many of the county’s large private employers — including America Online, MCI, United Airlines and FLYi Inc., parent of low-fare airline Independence Air, have laid off thousands of workers — growth continues, fueled by Loudoun’s proximity to the District and a strong regional job market.

Traffic stacks up bumper-to-bumper during rush hour on the major east-west routes connecting Loudoun County to the District, and residents report that simple neighborhood trips to the grocery store or school are increasingly tangled.

The pace of growth also engulfs the school system, which has built nearly 20 schools in the past five years and is constantly changing district boundaries.

“If you want to see an angry public meeting, go to a school board meeting where they are setting school boundaries, with one neighborhood pitted against another,” said Jim Burton, a supervisor who represents parts of western Loudoun and has sought to curb growth.

Also, Loudoun is perhaps the only fast-growing county in the region that has recently elected a pro-growth board. And the current board immediately succeeded a board that had been nearly unanimous in placing significant restrictions on development in much of the county.

The yo-yo quality of the county’s growth policies is not unusual, said David Williams, executive vice president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, which represents the interests of home builders.

“It’s the pendulum of land-use politics. Any time that body politic goes too far in either direction, you will have a causal effect and have it return to the other side,” Mr. Williams said.

In Loudoun, Mr. Williams said, the prior board overreached by imposing tight restrictions on development in much of the county. Voters reacted in 2003 by electing a board that would be more willing to work with developers.

Mr. Williams said a county stands to benefit by working with developers, who must put forward cash proffers to the government to help pay for the new schools and roads.

“The current board said to developers, ‘We are willing to go ahead and approve projects, but open up your checkbooks, because it is going to cost you,’” he said.

But Mr. Burton said the current pro-growth board fooled voters in the most recent election.

“There have been so many newcomers the last five years, and they did not pay attention, and they did not show up at the polls,” he said. Pro-growth candidates “made the claim they would manage growth. They co-opted the term.”

Now, Mr. Burton said, “Voters are very angry that they were duped.”

Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Bruce E. Tulloch, who has generally been pro-growth, said last week that public sentiment is split down the middle. Mr. Burton disagreed, saying the public is generally united in opposing pro-growth policies, particularly in the rural west.

“They see their rural setting, their rural lifestyle disappearing, and it is really upsetting,” Mr. Burton said.

Talk of western secession began this month after the Virginia Supreme Court overturned on a technicality zoning rules put in place by the prior board. The rules would have limited homes to every 20 or 50 acres in the rural western part of the county. Unless the board re-enacts those provisions — which it has so far been unwilling to do — landowners will be able to build on every three acres, potentially adding more than 50,000 homes to the county.

“It is classic suburban sprawl,” Mr. Burton said. The current board “has totally underestimated the breadth and depth of anger” among residents in western Loudoun.

The county is also considering developments in the eastern part of the county that opponents say would add 42,000 homes, or roughly 110,000 new residents.

At a recent public hearing, growth supporters had signs reading “Just Say No to Snob Zoning,” which they think would result from restricting homes to every 20 or 50 acres.

Many who spoke against development restrictions were longtime county residents.

Joseph Bane, who has lived in western Loudoun County for 44 years, said the county’s newest residents are trying to restrict growth.

“They’re as greedy as a dog in a manger,” Mr. Bane said.

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