EDITORIAL: Transparency and citizen participation must be central in development decisions
The stories are related, of course. Wrap them up and put them in the bucket called relentless growth.
Almost everyone supports economic growth in our go-go county, the fastest growing in Virginia and one of the hottest markets in the nation. But Loudoun also cherishes its character, a culture cultivated by its rural history and the abundant natural assets that are largely unappreciated by those who favor asphalt and concrete over landscapes and trees.
Balance is the objective, or at least that’s the official line that is given to us by the county’s leaders. So why do we have the uneasy feeling that we’ve reached a tipping point? Could it be the traffic jams on Route 15, a celebrated scenic roadway? The dirt mountains on Route 7 that lift crossroads above the commute. The bulldozers pushing earth above Broad Run at Kincora? The trees that have been clear cut from the forest behind the Village at Leesburg? The live-work-play mini-cities that are sprouting around the Silver Line stations under construction?
Will the march of development be restricted to the eastern half of Loudoun? It is seeming more and more unlikely, given the examples of ever-expanding development in Fairfax and Arlington counties.
Now come decisions that cause us to question if balance remains the goal in Loudoun. On Nov. 1, supervisors approved 14 additional uses for open space in the county’s rural areas. The decision came after the board-appointed Zoning Action Ordinance Group – a group dominated by developers – recommended 36 additional uses to open western Loudoun to new business and tourism opportunities.
The relaxation of expansion rules seems reasonable. They allow rural property owners to create complementary projects such as arboretums, gardens, agricultural cultural centers, farm markets, pet farms, nurseries, private stables, agri-education, agricultural processing operations, liveries, wayside stands, co-ops and direct market businesses for the sale of products produced on site.
Yet some residents of rural Loudoun worry that the scrimmage line keeps moving, that development, no matter how subtle or disguised, will encroach and ultimately overtake the land and rural character that brought them to Loudoun.
Ahead of the rural land-use vote, western Loudoun Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) was critical of those who continuously oppose some of the proposed uses.
“I’m somewhat … dismayed when people come up and use the microphone and say we haven’t thought about [these uses],” Higgins said. “There have been numerous opportunities for public input and outreach for all the groups that would be interested in this.”
First, there is never enough opportunity for citizens to have meaningful input into land-use decisions, many of which are conducted behind closed doors. Next, the best way to reflect the county’s open-mindedness about growth is to represent residents proportionally on the groups that are advising and making land-use decisions that impact them.
No one questions either the motivations or the expertise of developers or those who work for them, even those who live or work outside the county. But there is another set of qualified experts: the Loudouners who own the land. They deserve respect, attention and participation in the process.
Balance is tricky – the slightest change can tip the scale. We appreciate the challenge supervisors face as they try to maintain equilibrium. But criticizing preservationists and rural landowners puts a hand on the scale.
To earn the confidence of Loudoun’s citizens, supervisors should, at the very least, include them on advisory groups in equal numbers with those who have an interest in developing their county.
Additionally, supervisors should be transparent about their own potential conflicts, following the lead of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Before any zoning or land-use vote they should disclose campaign contributions or other possible conflicts with developers and land-use agents.
Meantime, citizens can discover campaign contributions by going to the Virginia Public Access Project’s web site at vpap.org. They can Google an elected official’s name and the words “campaign contributions.” The site returns contributions by top donors and by donor’s occupation, including the real estate/construction and transportation sectors.
The nonprofit VPAP was founded in 1997 with the premise that Virginia's ethics laws rely on disclosure, that it is imperative citizens have easy access to public documents related to money in politics.
Amid the growth that is transforming the county, Loudoun is best served by full disclosure, openness and balanced participation.
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