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EDITORIAL: Transparency and citizen participation must be central in development decisions

Several stories flew under the radar as Loudoun was consumed with electing a new president and re-electing a member of Congress. One was about relaxing the rules for development in rural areas of the county. Another was about the preponderance of developers and land-use agents on a citizen group that advises supervisors and county staff on zoning and planning issues. A third was about school overcrowding that challenges our education system and seems likely to impact the county’s tax structure.

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.


Ok, you know where Richmond is, petition the General Assembly to restrict the use of ED by VDOT.

I have never seen in print, in an adopted roads plan, a river crossing. Please link me to it. Of course, it’s been talked about for at least 40 years, and it always ends the same way, with Maryland never having the stones to see the big picture, due in part to the land owners in the Poolesville region and their political sway.

I believe you are correct, in that the County’s funding formula for building out the transportation plan/network has always included developer proffers, and so in that sense, the fact that a major project like Kincora is proffering $$ and/or components of roads to complete the Pacific/RB connection on the west/south sides of 7 and 28 is accurate. And I ask you, why is that wrong, to have development pay (portions) for high-order connecting roadways that have long been planned for? Are you an advocate of roads to nowhere (and hence, not connecting land development with needing the roads, but building the roads first, and then let development come?). 

I’m curious to know your credentials as a commercial real estate broker to assert what is and isn’t a viable value for land; can you do that for us? I certainly am/can not, but I understand the functions that create (or deter) land values, as I previously explained.

VDOT is exercising it’s right? It is a bad right. There is all sorts of garbage in the plan that has been planned for years talk about bridges over the Potomac. If it wasn’t for Kincora the road would never have been completed. The failure of VDOT to move the road a few hundred feet instead of using eminent domain to ruin this mans property is a symptom of the government corruption that favors the big money. The needs of the Kincora many do not outweigh the needs of this one man. Taking 4 acres ruined the other 7 acres. We don’t even have the carrot of a baseball park to fast track this bs.
The Miller and Smith property can have gold plated toilets and still ain’t worth $650,000.00 a acre.

I’ve read those articles, paid attention for years. I even used to visit down to that property, investigating the County, looking for the toll house and access to the Broad Run. I also know that extending RB parkway to connect to Pacific has been a planned County road project for decades.

Per your referenced article, the roadway is a VDOT project, and VDOT is exercising their right of eminent domain - that is not private development, as my comment clearly spelled out. Private development does not have access to eminent domain - they must negotiate in the free market for the land they seek. 

Further, a public roadway project is not “development”, in the same light as this Editorial speaks of development. Road construction is part and parcel with development, as you can’t have development without access of some sort, and Loudoun has not gotten to the point of having development with ZERO vehicular access (ie, rail, bike, ped only).

I won’t argue that Kincora proffer funds might be involved in this roadway project - I’d have to do much research to definitively yes or no, unless that’s noted in one of these back articles; please, correct me.

I re-read the comments in that article, including those of ‘orange’. A real misunderstanding of fair market value of real estate exists. I don’t know the particular piece of Miller and Smith property you referenced, but if it’s within the One Loudoun development area, the difference(in a nutshell) is that it is/was highly developable, entitled with development rights, had new streets and utilities near or at it, and is surrounded by other properties that are appreciating through the roof as they develop. All of that creates greater fair market value than a property that sits in the shadow of 2 limited access state highways and is bound by a very flood-prone stream - not to mention, has for many many years had a planned major collector type roadway planned somewhere in the near vicinity (connecting the E/W Russell Branch with the N/S Pacific somewhere near the intersection of 7 & 28).

Please, continue to beat the drum against Pro-development Supervisors (I left out party affiliation, because very few Supes in my memory have really toe’d the line of slow and careful growth, regardless of their political leanings). Villify them for the ‘them vs. us’ conundrum.

Are you familiar with what Ron Meyers, the BoS and Kincora have done to Shawn Pahlavani, Robert_Q_Smith? See “Construction continues, VDOT sues as Ashburn man holds on to his home”. 8-26-16 in the Loudoun Times Mirror then tell me about willing sellers?

What opportunities for public input was Higgins even talking about?  He conducts ZERO outreach much less anything on this topic.  I get his sporadic e-newsletters and this Action Item was never mentioned.  Same goes for Chair Randall.  Envision Loudoun is a good example of the County soliciting public input (though we’ll have to see if public input makes ANY difference or if it’s all just for show). What bugs me is here Supervisors just approved multiple new uses in the Rural Policy Area meanwhile EXCLUDING that Area in the Comp Plan Update Charter adopted earlier this year. Like the ZOAG, the Comp Plan Update Stakeholder Committee is packed with developers who only care about lining their pockets. Supervisors like Higgins are either totally ineffective or perhaps just asleep at the wheel. One prime example is AT&T’s Project Aurelia on Short Hill, which continues to advance with virtually no County oversight.  This demonstrates to me Supervisors like Higgins really don’t care about their constituents’ concerns or issues like stewardship of critical resources rural residents depend on like having an adequate clean groundwater supply.

A piece of land has never been privately developed against the owners wishes.  The “developers” buy the land from willing sellers.  At some point, the preservation, no & slow growth folks have to look in the mirror at “their own kind”, and say, we are the people supplying ‘the developers’ with land on which to develop. No land - no development. Someone owns all the land, we know this.  You want to stop the development - don’t sell it, or buy it yourself, and then don’t develop it/don’t sell it.  The zoning rules can come, go, change, but no land to develop equals no development. Please keep this in mind when we talk about “the developers” - they are powerless without land. Stop selling out Western Loudoun.

I’m glad the election is over and we can get back to “normal” editorials.

“Yet some residents of rural Loudoun worry that the scrimmage line keeps moving…”  Residents of non-rural Loudoun think the same thing.

Having attended the Leesburg public input session on the Comprehensive Plan, the vast amount of regular citizens wanted the brakes put on housing development.  Too many houses, too fast, infrastructure can’t keep up.  That was a common theme.  It was a stark contrast from statements from ZOAG (that just sounds evil).

“citizens can discover campaign contributions by going to the Virginia Public Access Project’s web site at vpap.org.”  And newspapers can pull the same information and print it too.

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