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Loudoun County's Ambitious Search for Perfection
County Aims to Keep Vast Acreage Rural

July 22, 2001

Loudoun's growth more »

Generation after generation, the Washington metropolis has expanded in ever-widening growth rings. Those rings pushed westward across Loudoun County during the 1990s. It became the region's fastest-growing suburb, its population doubled, and what seemed like the inexorable advance of development rolled toward the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But in an extraordinary reversal, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is ready to approve tomorrow what may be the most ambitious set of development controls imposed in the Washington suburbs. The culmination of two years of political upheaval, the plan is an unflinching exercise of governmental authority to control what gets built where and is supposed to preserve most of the county's farmland. It has drawn national attention.

"There are a lot of places in the U.S. that are facing the same kinds of dilemmas," said Marya Morris, senior research associate at the American Planning Association in Chicago. "People want to see what happens."

Under the plan, two-thirds of the county -- about 300 square miles of green that stretches to the Blue Ridge -- would be preserved in a rural state. Most of the suburban eastern third of the county would be divided into four communities, each of which could be retrofitted with a new town center, maybe even a traditional Main Street. Such ambitious plans are, in a way, attempts to define an ideal community, an echo of Pilgrim efforts to create a shining "city upon a hill."

But they are also political works, tugged at on one side by environmentalists and on the other by development interests. Both sides know that this plan to form a more perfect suburb must also have the support of voters, many of whom are likely to translate its ideals into matters of material self-interest: taxes, traffic and home resale values.

The debate, as a result, has proved to be a volatile blend of hypocrisy, idealism, political salesmanship and, at times, pure nastiness. It's not just the vitriol at county meetings, where real estate interests are denounced as landscape rapists and environmentalists cast as frog-kissing Stalinists.

"It's like the Civil War," said Middleburg real estate broker John Weidlein. "It's brother against brother, Loudouner against Loudouner."

A dozen landowners, angry at members of the local fox hunt club for supporting the plan, have published ads forbidding the hunt to chase the fox onto their properties. And in tiny Waterford, the post office stopped patrons from using its community bulletin board -- which for decades informed residents of funerals, job openings and missing cats -- after a disagreement over a plan petition that was posted there.

The most incendiary issues touch on money and class.

"This isn't really about preserving farming, like they say it is, unless you count riding around on your large lot on a big mower as farming," said Jack Shockey, a landowner who leads one of the main opposition groups, Citizens for Property Rights. "This is about snob zoning."

On the other side are those who say that, snobby or not, it would be irresponsible not to preserve Loudoun's beautiful landscape.

"Restricting development to homes on 50-acre lots sounds somewhat elitist," said S. Bruce Smart, former president of Continental Can Co., who raises horses and cattle on 600 acres. "But not everyone has a Monet in their living room. And you wouldn't tear up a Monet just because not everybody can have one."

Whether the plan is fair and workable hangs on the answers to some fundamental questions.

Would restricting development drive up the cost of housing and exclude families of moderate means?

Would the plan stop sprawl -- or simply accelerate it by pushing home builders into territory even farther west?

And can farming -- the industry that is supposed to be preserved under the plan -- stop its decades-long slide?

The answers that matter will be settled at the ballot box.

Advocates on both sides have spent more than $1 million -- or about $33 for each voter in the last election -- to advance their positions.

"We knew that in Loudoun that if we didn't do something quickly, the debate would be lost," said Christopher Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, a nonprofit group based in neighboring Fauquier County that has many hunt country financial backers.

Seven of nine Loudoun supervisors appear likely to approve the plan, and although they won't be up for reelection until 2003, opponents are threatening to unseat them and transform their "long-term vision" into what they mockingly call the "two-year plan." They're raising funds, mailing fliers, conducting polls and scouting for new leaders.

"You need to start right now working on candidates -- good candidates," developer and land-use lawyer John T. "Til" Hazel Jr. told those gathered last month for buffalo burgers at a Citizens for Property Rights fundraiser. "You have to be objective. . . . You need candidates who will appeal to the voters and are balanced -- not extremists. We had too many extremists in the last election."

A Mixture of Remedies

Perhaps as remarkable as the Loudoun plan itself is the setting. Loudoun was one of the nation's fastest-growing counties during the '90s. Subdivisions spread westward from Washington, yielding as many as 6,000 new homes in a year, while malls and tech giants America Online and WorldCom followed.

The population grew from 86,129 to 169,599.

It also became far more affluent. The median income per tax return in Loudoun County was higher than in any other Virginia county in 1998, according to the lastest state statistics. And in 2000, the average price for a single-family detached house was $346,205.

Most residents moved there from other area suburbs -- many to be free from the congestion and density of next-door Fairfax County -- only to find that what they had fled was again on their doorstep. Car bumpers blossomed with the message: "Don't Fairfax Loudoun."

The change is clear to Doug Fuller, a satellite specialist at George Washington University. He watches Loudoun grow every day, using space images taken from 438 miles up.

Fields and woods appear red, cement blue.

"You see this kind of bluish tone creeping into Loudoun County," Fuller said. He measures 18 acres of new blue each day.

One of the key features of the plan to be voted on tomorrow is its reduction of the potential number of new houses that could ever be built in the county from 187,000 to 110,000; 37,000 of those have preliminary approval. Loudoun currently has more than 65,000 homes.

Most of the reduction would come from the county's west, where the new plan would create two areas with different policies. In northwestern Loudoun, one home would be allowed on every 20 acres, or one per 10 acres if they were clustered to save open space. In the southwest, one house could be built every 50 acres, or one per 20 acres if clustered. Developers now are limited to one house per three acres.

"Having three-acre lots spreading across rural Virginia was one of the stupidest ideas ever hatched," said Randall Arendt, a national advocate for rural design whose books can be found on the desks of Loudoun planners. "They say Virginia is for lovers. But can you imagine ever loving a landscape with a McMansion popping up every 800 feet?"

The plan also seeks to shape the sometimes formless sprawl of eastern Loudoun into communities that feel more like traditional towns and seeks to protect the environment as never before -- no building within 100 feet of a stream, for example.

"None of these concepts is particularly new in theory," said Morris, of the American Planning Association. "But they're not often tried all at once."

Capitalizing on Disney Lessons

The origins of the "revolution," as some call it, go back to the Piedmont Environmental Council's epic campaign in the early 1990s against Walt Disney Co.'s proposed theme park in neighboring rural Prince William County.

During that time, annual donations to the group tripled to more than $2.5 million. Membership rolls swelled. Never before had the group's mission of preserving Virginia's mountainsides and farmland aroused so much passion.

Then Disney scuttled its plan and went away.

The environmental powerhouse that had arisen to defend the countryside rolled on.

One of its next targets was the Loudoun County master plan, which group members considered an open invitation to sprawl.

Over the past two or three years, Miller said, the Piedmont Environmental Council has spent about $500,000 on the Loudoun effort. Much of that money came from donations drawn from hunt country. An annual report lists 40 people who donated more than $10,000. They include Virginia S. Warner, the daughter of Republican Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.); Jacqueline Mars, of candy company fame; Stephen M. Wolf, chairman of US Airways; and Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems Inc.

"Disney taught us that we can't just sit back and nothing bad will happen," said Miller, of the environmental council.

One of the deep thinkers and key campaigners in the group's Loudoun effort is Ed Risse, a Fairfax-based planning consultant and author of a book about land use that proposes to, in Risse's words, "lay the groundwork . . . of a unified field theory of economic, social and physical human activity."

He intended, he writes, to do to his field what Copernicus, Newton and Darwin did in theirs.

He is an anti-sprawl prophet to his supporters; to his critics, a crank.

Risse has spent his career fighting a losing battle against the tendency of Americans to move farther and farther from the center of metropolitan areas and from each other.

One of Risse's main beliefs -- that the world would be a better place if more people lived in close-knit communities near Metro stations -- was a good fit for Miller's Piedmont Environmental Council because it would channel development pressures away from rural areas and onto cities and suburbs. After a meeting of the minds in 1997, Risse recalls, he set out to Loudoun to proselytize, on the council's dime.

He lugged an easel-size pad of graph paper scrawled with big blue letters for presentations on "Understanding Human Settlement Patterns," holding dozens of meetings with local anti-development activists and others he enticed with a "graduate planning class."

"You've got to get people to buy into it," Risse said. "I only talked to a couple hundred, and they talked to their neighbors."

The investment of the environmental council, combined with the efforts of Risse and other slow-growth campaigners, paid off: Each of the eight slow-growth candidates won in 1999.

But over the 19 months since they came to power -- promising to slow home building, reduce traffic, hold taxes down and save Loudoun's "rural character" -- the supervisors have slammed up against some harsh political realities.

They've been hit by direct-mail attacks and theatrical protests. And although Virginia courts appear more likely to uphold the county's planning powers than they did 30 years ago, they have been blitzed by legal threats.

Yet the supervisors have largely held their ground.

The supervisors' steadfastness, however, also has stirred a fervent and continuing opposition, one that could undo their work at the next election, or at any other.

Demands for Supply

Jeanette G. Newton, the blunt-spoken executive vice president of the Dulles Area Association of Realtors, is the real estate industry's answer to Ed Risse. She lives just outside Waterford.

Newton disputes the idea that Loudoun's slow-growth movement represents a popular revolution. In the 1999 slow-growth landslide, only 34 percent of the electorate showed up.

To shape her campaign, Newton commissioned a poll of 400 voters by Public Opinion Strategies, a national political research firm.

The poll found a large and "intense" group in Loudoun opposed to new home building. About 15 percent of Loudoun voters "strongly disapprove" of growth, more than twice the national average.

But the survey also identified two issues that might help her campaign against the plan: housing affordability and property rights.

Newton received $55,000 from the National Association of Realtors to fight the board, matching her state and local war chest. The national association has taken the Loudoun fight seriously enough to send a video to each of its 1,600 local associations advising them to be alert for slow-growth movements like Loudoun's.

Newton has used the money to advance her message: Preserving farms may be beautiful, but doing so restricts the supply of home lots, which in turn raises home prices.

The average Loudoun home -- including detached, town house and condominium dwellings -- sold for $263,000 as of January, about $2,500 higher than in Montgomery County and $85,000 higher than in Prince William, but $11,000 lower than in Fairfax, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

"This is America, the land of opportunity," Newton said. "Anybody who wants to buy a home should be able to buy a home."

Signs that say "snob zoning" with a red slash through the words have popped up in Loudoun front yards. And Realtors mailed oversize postcard cartoons to Loudoun voters depicting the "Board of Supervisors Shuttle" expelling a teacher, cop and high-tech executive to West Virginia, where new subdivisions are sprouting.

Developers blame rising home prices on the scarcity of land -- a scarcity driven partly by growth limits elsewhere. Montgomery County has an agricultural reserve of 90,000 acres, and Prince William has the "rural crescent" of 80,000 or more acres. Together with the proposed rural acreage in Loudoun, that means about 600 square miles of land on Washington's suburbanfringe -- an area 1 1/2 times the size of suburban Fairfax County, where about 1 million people live -- would be largely off-limits to suburban development.

It's not clear, however, how voters would react to the charge of "snob zoning" -- partly because some voters may embrace anything that boosts the resale value of their homes.

Supervisor Charles A. Harris (D-Broad Run) joined the fight over growth in Loudoun after taking a semester class on "The New Urban Region," taught by Risse at the University of Virginia in 1998.

Raising home prices may make good politics, Harris suggested.

"If that was the only issue in my reelection, I'd win hands down," Harris said.

There may be one other problem with the snob zoning strategy. The idea that real estate agents and home builders, who benefit from high prices and have opposed some laws requiring developers to build lower-priced units, are campaigning for affordable housing strikes some as ironic.

"I laugh at the critics who say that we are making housing expensive," said board Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large). "They're the same ones that are selling homes for $400,000 and up."

Government vs. Market

Whether the agricultural reserve will stop sprawl or simply push it farther out, to West Virginia and elsewhere, is another issue that, while of little value politically, could determine whether the plan succeeds.

It appears to be headed outward, anyway, as subdivisions pop up farther and farther from the region's federal core. According to George Mason University Professor Stephen S. Fuller, the metropolitan area added 112,700 jobs last year but only 27,000 housing units.

"Where did these other workers come from?" Fuller asked. "They drove in from outside the metropolitan area and drove home at night."

The complexity of the issues involved, combined with uncertainty over the plan's effects, have made some marquee members of Loudoun's business community skeptical.

"It's very easy to say low growth, slow growth, quality growth. Those are meaningless words, frankly," said Raymond J. Oglethorpe, president of America Online Inc.

"These are all being done based on gut reactions versus overall vision. . . . They could be right. But, again, it's very hard for a lot of people to understand where we are going at this point," he said.

Others, however, say it is precisely the fundamental issues in play that make Loudoun's fight worth watching.

Roy L. Ash, 82, who founded defense contractor Litton Industries and served as chief of the Office of Management and Budget under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, owns more of Loudoun County -- 1,900 acres -- than any other individual. And he says he is as torn by the plan as the county is.

"Should we let the unfettered market work or should we have the government decide to take from some to give to others?" he asked, referring to the way the plan would preserve views for some but limit development rights for others. "I'd like to have both. I like the principle of property rights, but I like living here, too.

"How do you reconcile those irreconcilable points of view?"


In Loudoun, Farming Serves as a Potent Symbol
Development Debate Obscures Decline of Agriculture

To hear the rhetoric in Loudoun County is to believe that the future lies in farming.

The Board of Supervisors is drafting a plan to "preserve the rural economy" and set aside most of the county, about 300 square miles, for agriculture. One supervisor boasts of her district as "the breadbasket." And here and there at meetings, self-described "dirt farmers" wearing red bandannas amble up to the mike to expound their views.

"From the time I was a small boy, I lived and worked on my family's farm," one of the men, Jack Shockey, told the supervisors at one session. "I considered myself a farmer and still do."

But Shockey and many of the others in the red bandanna group are not farmers; the county's wheat production is meager and hardly makes Loudoun a "breadbasket." Agriculture in the county, as elsewhere, is in the midst of a 40-year economic slide.

In fact, Loudoun County is one of the nation's fastest-growing suburbs. But in the raucous debate over controlling growth that has divided the county, the myth of the Loudoun farmer has become a potent political image.

The county's Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote tonight on a plan to restrict development that may be as far-reaching as any ever tried in the Washington suburbs. The restrictions, which emerged after 19 months of debate and have the support of a majority of the board, have drawn national attention and are intended to contain suburban sprawl while preserving what is left of Loudoun's rural landscape.

Each side in the political struggle has traded in agricultural imagery, seeking to tap into voters' feelings for farms and farming, a sympathy that is at least as old and as American as Thomas Jefferson's agrarian ideals.

The debate in Loudoun has at times obscured the true state of farming, a critical issue because if farming continues to decline, the preserved farmland is far less likely to withstand the burgeoning development push.

The plan under consideration would limit development on a huge swath of land -- about two-thirds of the county. But whether that land is used for working farms -- or for hobby farms and tax breaks -- or merely for open space and aesthetics bears heavily on whether farmland preservation makes economic sense. People may ask: Why preserve the countryside at all?

"Unless you keep it farmed, the pressure will remain to develop it," said Judy Daniel, the lead planner for rural preservation for Montgomery County, where leaders set aside about 90,000 acres for farming in the 1980s. "Open land with no productive use can become fair game for developers."

Many farmers take a dim view of Loudoun's agricultural prospects. Try talking up farming, for example, to Bruce McIntosh, a lifelong farmer, and one of a handful in the county to still pursue it as a primary occupation. He discouraged his sons from taking up the family trade, saying they could make more money "picking up trash."

He has a wry rebuttal for the idea that his 485-acre beef cattle farm and its surroundings might be considered the critical source of the county's wheats and grains.

"Yeah, it was the breadbasket," McIntosh says, "during the Civil War."

Preserving 'Rural Heritage'

On one side of the Loudoun farm debate is the county's slow-growth Board of Supervisors. While the board's suburban constituents may be most interested in limiting traffic jams and school construction costs, one critical goal of the plan, according to board members, is to preserve the county's "rural heritage."

The supervisors talk up the possibilities of Loudoun agriculture. In addition to board member Sarah R. Kurtz (D-Catoctin) touting the lushness of her "breadbasket" district, some of her other colleagues argue that niche farms, such as those with Christmas trees, vineyards and other alternative crops and livestock like water buffalo, can replace the losses of traditional agriculture.

"There's a whole marching army of them," Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer) said of the niche operations. "There are people not willing to give up the agricultural life or scene. They love it. They love the land and the setting and the countryside. It matters a lot to a lot of people out here."

On the other side of the argument is the red bandanna group, also known as Citizens for Property Rights, mostly a group of landowners. They argue that the plan, by limiting development in an ill-advised attempt to save farming, unfairly devalues their property.

Though most are not farmers by primary occupation, they don the red bandannas and blame suburbanites and their demands for open space as an assault on their property rights. The landowners call it the "tyranny of the majority."

"They're taking money right out of our pockets," said Shockey, a retired accountant and an investigator for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for 23 years who ran a motel in Falls Church until last June. His family struck it rich when his father, who was a farmer, started a quarry in Chantilly in the 1950s that paved the runways at Dulles International Airport.

As president of Citizens for Property Rights, he says he is trying to protect the value of his mother's 800-acre farm, where he was raised and where he hopes to see a large subdivision. Shockey has been considering a run for board chairman himself.

"All of these people say, 'We enjoy the open space.' Well if they do, why don't they buy it?"

Farmland vs. Farms

Fifty years ago, about a decade before Dulles was built on the county's eastern edge, about 290,000 acres were farmed in Loudoun. Today, that number has withered to less than 185,000, a drop of 36 percent. And the slide continues.

Part of the phenomenon, of course, is that selling to developers has become far more profitable than farming, particularly as the Washington metropolitan region has expanded steadily outward from the District of Columbia.

The county's plan directly addresses this phenomenon: It would prohibit suburban development in the rural area.

It would limit future development in the west to one home per 10 or 20 acres, depending upon how closely they are clustered, to save open space. Otherwise, the plan would limit development even further -- to one home per 20 or 50 acres. Current planning allows up to one home per three acres.

But while these restrictions may be effective at preserving farmland, preserving farming itself is a greater challenge.

Some of the forces behind the disappearance of farming are outside government control. Sagging commodities prices, rising wages, international competition and other large-scale economic changes have made profitable farming difficult.

"It's too hard to make a living on the traditional agriculture," said William Harrison, who was an agricultural agent in Loudoun for 29 years before he retired.

Take, for example, brothers Bill and Chris Hatch.

They each have jobs off the farm -- Bill works as a television network video specialist in Washington and Chris is a part-time school bus driver -- but they're still struggling to make a go of the 400-acre farm their father bought in 1950.

Their land housed a dairy until 1986, when, after operating in the red for 10 years, they switched to raising beef cattle. That hasn't proved profitable either. Last year, they grossed about $12,000. They're now exploring the idea of vineyards and vegetables that they could sell themselves.

They'd like to try to keep farming, but in case they can't make the farm work, they'd like to preserve their development rights and property values.

A study commissioned by the county reported that the new restrictions would reduce rural property values by 30 percent to 45 percent. Others, however, argue that the zoning restrictions might raise property values by adding an elite, horse-country-only prestige.

"People think we should just farm this land forever," said Bill Hatch. "But we haven't been making a profit for 20 years or more. There are easier ways to lose money."

He estimated that 90 percent of the farms in the county are hobby farms or retirement passions.

"I don't know anyone in Loudoun who is operating in the black," he said.

Lessons from Montgomery County

Maybe the best place to see how rural preservation can work lies across the Potomac River in Montgomery County. A master plan approved in 1980 created an agricultural reserve of 93,000 acres and restricted development there to one home per 25 acres.

The purpose, said the plan's sponsors, was to preserve not only farmland, but also the economy of farming itself.

Today, more than 90 percent of the agricultural reserve set aside 21 years ago has remained in farmland, pastures and forests, according to county tax records. No rezonings have taken place in that time.

Montgomery farm operations fall into three categories: traditional crop farms, horse farms and horticultural operations, which include landscaping nurseries, Christmas tree farms and sod farms.

Farm profitability has often proved elusive, however, and over the years the number of people who reported farming as a principal occupation dwindled steadily.

In 1978, just before the agricultural reserve was created, 309 farm operators reported farming as their principal occupation. By 1997, the last year for which statistics are available, that number had fallen to 221, a drop of 28 percent.

"Not many people wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to be a farmer,' " said John Zawitoski, director of planning and promotion for the county's agricultural services division. "If you ask most of them why they do what they do, it's either, 'It's what we've always done' or 'It's what we know' or 'It's part of our heritage.' "

Although the rural plans in Montgomery and Loudoun both hold the preservation of farming as a goal, there is one critical difference.

Loudoun County's planners have faced charges of "snob zoning" because the plan would restrict home development, but Montgomery County created its agricultural reserve without diminishing the overall potential for home building in the county. It merely allowed the right to build houses that then existed in the rural area to be shifted to already suburbanized areas. But such an arrangement is prohibited by Virginia law.

Surge in Substitutes

Leaders in Loudoun County acknowledge that traditional farming may be inexorably disappearing. But they have high hopes for a range of replacements, from agricultural biotechnology to an expansion of the horse industry to the alternative crops.

A retired high-tech executive already grows chili peppers and markets them on the Internet. Another Loudounite is trying to sell mozzarella cheese from water buffalo milk. The county also boasts 31 Christmas tree farms and 23 vineyards.

Louis S. Nichols, the county's agricultural development officer, said that 2,500 to 3,000 acres are planted with alternative crops, and most of those farms occupy other acreage beyond what's planted.

Most of those farms are relatively small, however, at least compared with the 200,000 acres in the rural area.

The other critical pillar of Loudoun's farming future is the equine industry, according to county officials.

"The future of Loudoun County is spelled H-O-R-S-E," said Warren Howell, who left his job at a farm supply company to become an agriculture promoter for the county. "You are going to see a lot of money and land go into horses."

Loudoun had 19,800 horses in 1995, the last time there was a comprehensive survey. That translated into about 2,480 jobs.

But county consultants Hunter Interests Inc. concluded in a report last year that the equine industry probably will not grow in the next 10 years. And it certainly isn't easy to make money in horses.

Roy L. Ash, the county's biggest individual landowner, tried horse breeding for a few years but gave it up.

"We've sold our last horse, thankfully," said Ash, head of the Office of Management and Budget in the Nixon and Ford administrations. "I have my eye on the bottom line."

He had six mares for a thoroughbred breeding business, but his timing was terrible. "We got in when the market was up, and we got out when the market was low," he said, adding that even at a better moment, breeding is economically tough to sustain.

"The people who are in this business get a lot of psychic satisfaction out of it," he said.

Symbols in the Struggle

Indeed, much of the tension in the current debate stems from the gap between some of the very wealthy, who farm or who have horses for pleasure, and those who must make a profit.

Each side has its propaganda.

One of the most pervasive symbols used by opponents of the anti-sprawl plan has been the red bandanna, which has become the trademark of Citizens for Property Rights. It is supposed to symbolize its message that the farm preservation plan is making victims of the farmers themselves.

Sally Miller, a local developer and public relations executive, came up with the idea of the bandannas last March when she was organizing the opposition group. Miller went to the local feed store and bought out all the bandannas, then did the same at the local crafts store.

She passed them out at recruiting meetings with farmers and landowners, and they soon caught on, showing up on those who work the land as well as on many who don't.

"They've been pretty successful, the bandannas," Miller said. "That's always been an identifying thing for farmers. They just need to pull them out of their pockets and put them around their neck. . . . It was perfect."

Plan backers have gone to comparable lengths.

The Middleburg Online Web site is promoting a children's book called "The Magic Bond," an equestrian fairy tale in rhyming verse by two local authors. The characters include a smirking Miss Snaffle, who, according to the blurb, is "the nasty property developer that will do anything to get hold of the farm and turn it into aluminum and cement."

Her voice sounded much like the squawk of a goose.

Most people thought she had a ring loose.

Also making an appearance: Mr. and Mrs. Cribbing, "the kind-hearted farmer and wife who have spent their lives caring for animals, protecting wildlife and their beloved environment."

The owner was gentle, warm and forgiving.

No better man lived than old Mr. Cribbing.

'Isn't This Nice?'

Not surprisingly, many of those who own farms in Loudoun County are in it not for the profits, Nichols said, so much as the way of life.

"There are a lot of people who like the lifestyle," Nichols said. "They just want to sit on their front porches and see their 300 acres and say, 'Isn't this nice?' "

It is this romance of farming, in a way, that makes the Loudoun debate over economics and preservation so thorny.

Even lifelong farmers such as McIntosh, who take the matter of farm profits seriously, acknowledge that the allure of farming extends beyond financial considerations. He tells a joke about a farmer who has just sold a piece of his farm for $1 million.

"The farmer goes to town, where people ask him, 'Hey, what are you going to do now?' " McIntosh said. "The farmer says, 'I'll just keep farming until it's all gone.' "

© 2001 The Washingto n Post

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