In 1991, in preparation for the motion picture “Gettysburg,” my crew filmed parts of a Civil War re-enactment on ground just north of Leesburg. I vividly recall that you could stand at just about any intersection in downtown Leesburg and see green open space in the distance at any point of the compass.
Those my age can recall what a splendid place it was, in the days before county supervisors succumbed to the siren song of “development” and “growth.” In the years following the release of my movie in 1993, on the many occasions I had to visit friends in Loudoun County, I looked on with growing dismay as this once spectacularly beautiful place got steadily paved over; open fields subdivided, forests clear cut, traffic increasingly congested, noise levels raising, historic old buildings torn down to be replaced with ugly parking lots.
By 2019, a drive that used to take five minutes now required at least 30. Loudoun County, like so many counties across America, had been turned into one big traffic jam, a place we now recognize as Nowhere, America -- the same chain stores, the same chain restaurants, the same chain movie theaters, the same chain everything. If you were blindfolded in advance and dropped into the middle of the county you could be in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Des Moines, Hackensack, Gainesville – take your pick, Florida or Virginia.
Tiny pockets of protected historic homes and tree-lined streets in the historic downtown persist as mute testimony to the architectural and natural diversity that once was. To add pernicious insult to grave injury, signs were placed at vehicular entrances to the county, boasting the county's booming growth.
This is what happens when politicians ignore tradition, common sense and the voices of local residents. This is what happens when special interests rule. The transition complete, one of the most beautiful communities in America has been transformed into just one more sprawling, noisy, congested, over-crowded, architecturally vapid exurb – with taxes repeatedly raised to pay for the insatiable requirements of the burgeoning population.
And what about wild animals? Remember those? The relentless onslaught of subdivision, construction and roads has driven all wildlife to the far western fringes of the county. What used to be part of the fabric of life in Loudoun, taken for granted as recently as the 1990s, has virtually disappeared.
You would think that at some point the residents and taxpayers of the county would just rise up and say stop. Enough is enough. Enough is already too much. But open space drives developers crazy. Forested land offends them. Why should a farm be a farm when it could be 50 houses on postage stamp lots?
The developers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians spout all sorts of high-minded, long-winded rationales for the necessity of building more and more houses, more and more apartment buildings, more and more strip malls and more and more shopping centers. These same worn-out excuses have been trotted out in a thousand places before, always with the same, predictable results. They aren’t even presented as arguments; they’re invoked as incantations. “Affordable housing,” chants the Chamber of Commerce, as if singing from an ancient sacred text.
To cope with the degraded, bumper-to-bumper dystopia they have created they enclose themselves in gated communities inside multi-million dollar homes, protected by armed guards and camouflaged by fancy shrubbery and manicured lawns. As if weekly landscaping could begin to replicate the natural Eden that existed in Loudoun County as recently as a quarter century ago.
But as we know, folks get used to just about anything. Like the frog in the gradually boiling water, they don’t fully comprehend their demise until its just too late. Those who are 25 or so think its normal. But it isn’t normal, just or inevitable. Are the citizens of Loudoun County just peons; little more than the serfs of Loudoun’s ruling development elite? Or can they make a start at preventing the total destruction of Loudoun’s natural environment and the little open space that’s left?
(Maxwell wrote and directed “Gettysburg,” “Gods & Generals” and “Copperhead.”)