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Loudoun reaches No. 1 spot as development spreads

By Anne Keisman
April 14, 2004

Related: Traffic & High Income follow »

Growth around Leesburg Virginia in 2004
Growth around Leesburg Virginia in 2004
It all started with a sewer pipe.

Tangled traffic snarls, homes sprouting up by the hundreds, students pouring into dozens of newly minted schools. All these by-products of Loudoun's growth were set into motion when Washington Dulles International Airport was in its infancy – and in need of sewer and water lines. Once utilities arrived in the early 1960s and the Dulles Toll Road was built, speculators started buying up the land destined to be the next D.C. suburb. The construction of Loudoun’s first development, Sterling Park, was not far behind.

chart of loundoun growthAnd here we are – 40 years later -- living in the fastest-growing county in the country, according to figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week. Loudoun’s surging growth rate is old news, but the numbers continue to astound. The county's population rose 50 percent in the 1980s, then almost doubled in the '90s. From 2000 to 2002, 10,000 homes were added to the county.

In 1962, when the airport opened its doors, Loudoun's population was about 20,000 – the same as it had been for 200 years. The current population is now 10 times that amount – and has grown by an astonishing 30 percent from April 2000 to July 2003.

Why Loudoun? Major attractions include business giants MCI and AOL headquartered in eastern Loudoun, real estate taxes that continue to be lower than other D.C. suburbs, and great swathes of rural countryside that add scenic beauty to the mix

But prosperity has a price. New homes mean roads clogged with cars, high demand for schools and the potential end to the rural lifestyle that has long been Loudoun’s hallmark. In response to these challenges, the political climate blows wildly from left to right as voters struggle to find someone – anyone -- who can steer the county to safety.

"We've had four years of a board dedicated to slow growth, and [the growth rate] has gone from third to first," said Mick Staton (R-Sugarland Run). Staton is one of six new Republican supervisors who say many of the problems Loudoun faces are due to the previous board’s poor management of money and acrimonious relationship with developers.

In 1999, a slate of “smart growth” supervisors was elected, saying that slowing residential growth was necessary to save the taxpayers from the escalating cost to the county. After the board down zoned parts of the county, mainly in the rural west, and slapped eco-friendly – but costly – restrictions on builders, the voters spoke again last November and reversed course.

“We need to balance the needs of the west and east,” said Staton. “I think if we have everybody sitting down at the table – developers, smart-growth advocates – I think we will see that we aren't so far apart.” Staton said the previous board sacrificed the suburban east by concentrating development there – a tactic Republicans dubbed “density-packing.”

From 1999 to 2003, while the board tinkered with Loudoun's zoning ordinance to restrict development, builders flooded the county with requests for building permits – racing to build before the new rules were in effect. The current majority has made the heady promise of loosening restrictions on developers, lowering taxes, limiting debt and catching up with the basic public services the 12,000 to 15,000 new residents each year demand. A promise some say is a pipe dream.

"It looks like we are headed for more trouble in providing services to our community than it we have before," said Peggy Maio of the Piedmont Environmental Council, who has actively lobbied for controls on development.

"The pain Loudoun County is feeling is due to mistakes made 15 years ago," she said. Maio said that residents must remember that the changes the previous board put into effect will not be felt for several years.

Staton said that by working with developers instead of against them, negotiating proffer agreements will be far more successful.

Critics accuse the current board of riding to power on the back of the developer dollar, and now they are paying back their benefactors. Developer and School Board Chairman John Andrews (Potomac) has the unique perspective of seeing growth in Loudoun from the business and public services angle.

"There is a difficulty understanding what it takes to maintain the educational system in the fastest-growing county in the nation," said Andrews, whose proposed school budget was cut by $12 million by the Board of Supervisors.

He added that Loudoun’s growth has a lot to do with market forces out of local government’s control.

“We have a generational low in interest rates,” he said. “I don’t expect a slowdown until the interest rates climb to at least 7 percent.” They average at 5.5 percent currently.

In addition to losing open space and embarking on unprecedented public construction projects, Loudoun has experienced an alarming lack of what is known as “workforce housing” – affordable housing for lower-income individuals. The average cost of a home in Loudoun is now $372,558, and the average rent is $1,100 – making the county prohibitively expensive for many who work here, especially teachers, public servants and service industry workers.

"I moved to Winchester when I couldn't afford Loudoun's affordable housing," said Terri Fletcher, who works at the Seiko store at Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets.

Cindy Mester, Director of the Loudoun County Office of Housing Services, has seen her department grow from a staff of four serving 235 families to a staff of 26 with a budget of $13 million. "The local economy tends to be more stable, with a good quality of life, when you have a diverse housing base balanced with a diverse job market," said Mester. Currently, Mester has 1,300 people on a waiting list for federally subsidized Section 8 housing, and 400 on the list for the local Affordable Dwelling Unit Program. Four years ago the department had 6,000 visits. Last year it was 31,000. The ADU program is a local program mandated by the county that demands that every large development (more than 50 units) provide a certain amount of affordable housing.

Mester said Loudoun’s image as a wealthy community tends to obscure the real problems many residents face. She said, historically, 26 percent of Loudoun's population will need housing support in some way – either through her program, or living somewhere cheaper.

The good news is that since Loudoun’s population has surpassed 200,000, it is now eligible for direct federal funding – instead of competing for allocations from the state. Mester said 86 percent of her department is funded by state or federal funds.

The deluge of development is far from over. According to Clark Draper in the county's Department of Economic Development, 75,688 homes currently have approval from the county. As of Jan. 1, building permits have been issued for 37,209 of that number, leaving more than 38,000 homes in the pipeline – waiting to house even more residents.

Shannon Sollinter contributed to this article.

©Times Com munity News papers 2004


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