An uncivil war: The battle of Loudon

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Civil War remains a reality in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Abundant historical and cultural touchstones of that era dot the landscape. Scores of villages that bore witness to battles remain, some nearly unchanged. Activists work to preserve the churches that served as hospitals and graveyards for soldiers during the war. Families tell stories of forbears who fought here, while descendants of carpetbaggers still possess antebellum estates. About 30 miles from Washington, D.C., Loudoun County was just far enough from the Union lines to feel a part of Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy, yet close enough that sections of the county changed hands repeatedly during the war.

While present-day residents have abandoned the sentiment that the Civil War ended just yesterday, a different battle brews here. The spoils continue to be the land, but the opposing sides have shifted to east and west, rather than north and south.

A physical line, running up and down the county, divides its 517-square-mile surface area: Route 15 runs southward out of the county to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and northward into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. To the east of that line is an area of stunning growth, accounting for most of Loudoun’s three-fold population explosion since 1990 (from 86,129 to 278,797 in 2007). It is a land where single-family homes stand shoulder-to-shoulder, many on quarter-acre lots along a maze-work of roads, where muscular “McMansions” compete for bragging rights and strip malls spring up like weeds along an abandoned railroad track. Yet, to the west, between Route 15 and the Blue Ridge Mountains, is what remains of the pastoral past.

This blend of the past and present, and its proximity to Washington, D.C., has fueled Loudoun’s growth and made it one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, with a median income $99,371 in 2006. At the same time, it has made the battle over land use in Loudoun a microcosm of the debate about development throughout the country. While some make egalitarian demands for more affordable housing and economic development in Loudoun’s suburban sector, others hoist battle flags vowing to preserve the county’s rural western outposts that have changed little in the last century.

Explosive growth beginning in the early 1990s and continuing unabated into the 21st century pitted neighbor against neighbor, developer against conservationist, and new residents against those with long family roots here. The increasingly nasty debate — spurred by speculative bursts of real estate investment, which in turn fueled six-figure campaign war chests for local elected officials who sit in judgment of the proposed real estate developments — brought the attention of federal prosecutors. No charges have been filed, but the FBI continues to investigate apparent conflicts of interest and possible corruption in Loudoun.

According to news accounts and interviews with officials who say they have been interviewed by the FBI, investigators are looking at the close relationship between developers or landowners who benefitted from land use decisions and the county officials who make those decisions — members of the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission, including:

• Lawrence S. Beerman II, a former Loudoun Planning Commission chairman “who voted repeatedly for land proposals advanced by a major development firm from which he received substantial business,” according to a January 2007 Washington Post editorial, “The Sleaze In Loudoun”, which followed a year-long investigation by the paper of Loudoun’s development practices. Beerman quit his commission job in 2006, soon after the newspaper began investigating conflict-of-interest allegations, and accepted a job from another local developer Van Metre Homes.

• Dale Polen Myers, the Board of Supervisors chair from 1995-1999, who actively recruited and helped elect a pro-development slate of supervisors in 2003. Soon after taking office, the board voted to enhance the zoning status of her family farmland – shared among multiple heirs which was sold to developers for almost $12.3 million, four times the $3 million assessed value at the time of the sale.

• The Myers-backed board in 2004 also approved purchase of a 101-acre parcel of land from the Islamic Saudi Academy Inc. (ISA) for $13.5 million, a deal in which Myers was the real estate agent and received a portion of the commission. If her share was one quarter of a six-to-10 percent commission – a typical share for these sorts of deals in the region – it would have been between $202,000 and $337,500.

Myers, whose family roots in Loudoun date to the 18th century, acknowledged to The Washington Post in March 2007, “We’re part of an FBI investigation,” but has maintained that she’s broken no laws. In interviews this year, Myers told the Center for Public Integrity “I never asked anybody to do anything,” that she stayed out of the negotiations regarding her family property and that she made clear to all involved, including County Attorney John R. Roberts, that she was the broker for the ISA land deal. Roberts and County Administrator Kirby M. Bowers confirm they were well aware that Myers was the ISA agent before the sale.

“I didn’t want any perception of a conflict,” she said, insisting that she called Roberts and Kirby before the board voted on the ISA land purchase and told them both: “I want the board members to know that I am the agent on this deal. I want full disclosure.”

Beerman has declined the Center’s requests for interviews or for comment about the federal probe.

Much of Loudoun’s explosive growth in the 1990s and 2000s was spurred by the tech boom that pushed the national economy to new heights, and by Dulles Airport, which opened in 1962 and grew steadily into the busy hub planners envisioned. By 2002, Dulles employed nearly 19,000 people and generated $6.2 billion in business revenue regionally, according to statistics on the airport’s website. Last year, 24.7 million passengers moved through the nation’s 16th busiest airport, which sits on 11,830 acres.

Dulles sits along Loudoun’s eastern edge, just 23 miles west of the White House. Leesburg lies another 13 miles northwest of the airport, and linking the two is the Dulles Greenway, a privately constructed toll road, whose local financiers gambled heavily on Loudoun’s pending growth. As the county and state considered permitting the road in the late 1980s, the debate centered on whether such a road would merely accommodate development or become a force encouraging it. Either way, after opening in 1995, the 14 miles of blacktop became a major artery for commuters and commerce, despite the price tag: currently $6 in tolls round trip, set to reach $9.60 for rush-hour traffic by 2012.

America Online and MCI placed their headquarters in Loudoun. MCI is now part of Verizon, headquartered in New York, while AOL merged with Time Warner and moved to New York after switching its focus from Internet services to advertising. Elements of both remain in the county, but much of AOL’s operation will move. Orbital Sciences Corporation, which makes satellites and the rockets to shoot them into space, calls Loudoun its home. Orbital, Verizon, and AOL remain among the top employers in Loudoun, along with Inova Loudoun Hospital, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, United Airlines, and engineering firm M.C. Dean.

Loudoun grew nearly 97 percent from 1990 to 2000, when the U.S. Census Bureau counted the population at 169,599, and continued to grow rapidly. The county led the nation in cumulative growth from 2000 to 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Loudoun’s estimated population in July 2007 totaled 278,797, tripling its 1990 population. Forecasters predict continued growth, with more than 301,000 people in the county by 2010.

The number of housing permits issued annually rose steadily from 1,100 in 1991 to more than 6,500 in 2003 and 2004. Only a couple of brief dips marred that ascension before a significant and steady decline: 5,065 in 2005, 3,061 in 2006, and 2,739 in 2007.

The need for more schools naturally followed the population increases, with enrollment more than doubling from 14,632 in 1990 to 31,804 in 2000. During the current school year, enrollment is listed at 54,047. Since 1995, the school system has constructed 41 schools — 34 in the past 10 years — and expects to open two more schools this year and four more next year.

With one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, the Washington metropolitan region employs most of Loudoun’s eligible workers. In terms of job growth, Loudoun ranked fifth nationally from 2000 to 2006 and fourth from 2000 to 2007, according to Money magazine.

Salaries earned by Loudoun households top most of the country. The median household income rose from $64,174 in 1995 to $98,483 in 2005. The county became the wealthiest in the nation in 2005, but fell back to second place the following year — behind neighboring Fairfax County — with a median household income of $99,371.

Fighting with money

In this growth environment, developers naturally prospered. Builders purchased huge tracts of land, winning easy approval for many communities, including more than 6,000 homes in Cascades in the 1970s, more than 5,000 in Ashburn Village in the 1980s, and nearly 6,000 in South Riding in the early 1990s. Toward the end of the ‘90s, as land prices closer to D.C. soared, developers bought large swaths of relatively cheap land in Loudoun, expecting the good times to keep on rolling.

Greenvest LC, the company around which many of Loudoun’s growth debates would center through the first half of this decade, spent millions on land, gambling that it could persuade the county government to approve the changes required to achieve its plans – changes not too different from the county’s long-term vision throughout the ‘90s.

But even before the high-tech bubble burst, the political winds shifted in 1999. Voters elected a slow-growth board of supervisors that scaled back the county’s comprehensive plan, a move that threatened Greenvest’s potential profit, and rejected one of Greenvest’s first rezoning requests for a suburban residential community. The developer responded by filing dozens of lawsuits against the county.

Greenvest was not alone in opposing the slow-growth board’s actions. More than 200 landowners and developers sued the county after the Board of Supervisors reduced existing development rights over two-thirds of the county.

Rather than give up, Greenvest dug in its heels. In addition to filing lawsuits, the developer purchased land where other developers failed to win approval for two separate projects and eventually took control of thousands of acres of county land. By the end of 2005, Greenvest LC led the pack in terms of sheer mass, owning more than 5,000 acres in those portions of eastern Loudoun where little development had yet occurred and where services and infrastructure were practically nonexistent. Greenvest remains the second-largest landowner in the county behind Dulles Airport.

Brian Roherty — an advocate of the types of planned communities Greenvest proposed in Loudoun who set up a nonprofit group to defend the developer — said he believed there was a window of opportunity for Greenvest and other developers. Roherty, a former state budget director for Minnesota, said Loudoun faced an opportunity to permit what he described as a higher-quality community. By approving plans put forward by Greenvest and a couple of other developers, he said, Loudoun would get millions of dollars worth of roads, schools, and other infrastructure.

“Some people think that the window of opportunity is always open,” he told the Center. “It actually closes. People move on. They do other things with their investments. The reason they do it is because they have to do what’s in their financial best interests.”

Greenvest apparently did not find it in its “financial best interests” to contribute to any candidates in the Loudoun Board of Supervisors races during the 1999 election cycle, according to campaign finance disclosures compiled by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). But after Myers and her pro-growth majority were replaced by a slow-growth majority that November, Greenvest’s interests changed.

In 2003, Greenvest helped fund the campaigns of 10 candidates for the Board of Supervisors’ nine seats. Six of them won, and the board’s new majority set out to reverse some earlier decisions. They settled one lawsuit opening an area of the county to development, which was noteworthy in that county attorney advised that the former board’s position would have prevailed in court. In addition, the new majority approved several of Greenvest’s land development requests and opened up the county’s comprehensive plan to developer-initiated proposals.

The last concession led to a proposal by Greenvest to construct 15,000 homes in a previously undeveloped eastern part of the county. Such an approval would have opened up that entire planning area to similar development, potentially resulting in more than 30,000 homes, regardless of who developed them.

Supervisor Lori Waters, a Republican who represents part of Loudoun’s eastern suburban area, said Greenvest threw its support behind candidates it thought would approve their development plans. Waters rejected the views of her GOP colleagues on many land use votes and was criticized for her stands.

“There were some donations that were given to me in 2003 that I would say were given by certain advocates within the development industry that really didn’t know me very well . . . but they just assumed that because I was a Republican that they could make me go along with what they wanted or what the other Republicans were planning,” she said in an interview with the Center.

Myers raised money for Waters in 2003 and handed checks to Waters from developers, including Greenvest, who planned to request land use changes. “They never told me their plans that they were coming in to open up the transition area,” Waters said, referring to a 23,000-acre area roughly halfway between the eastern suburbs and the rural west, which had been designated for relatively low-density development.

Greenvest has not responded to multiple requests from the Center for interviews over a period of months.

In Virginia, there are no restrictions on campaign contributions — businesses, individuals, and political action committees may contribute as much as they like to campaigns as long as the donations are reported. Starting in 2003, Greenvest and the development community transformed campaigns in Loudoun by pumping a record amount of money into the campaign coffers of local candidates in an apparent attempt to dilute heavy campaign contributions being made by donors focused on conservation and the environment.

In 1999, the environmental community outspent the real estate and construction industry by approximately $79,000 to $67,000, according to VPAP’s categorization of donors. In that race, eight supervisors backed by environmentalists won office. But in 2003, the tides turned dramatically when the development community outspent slow-growth advocates by nearly five to one, putting up $523,000 to the environmentalists’ $106,000, and a pro-growth majority won office.

Jim Burton, an independent board member representing the far western, rural Blue Ridge District, said that the pro-development candidates succeeded in 2003 by calling themselves advocates of managed growth.

“They recognized early in the campaign that their pro-development view of the world wasn’t going to work and they all changed to campaign on managed growth,” said Burton.

In 2007 environmental groups contributed about $151,000 compared with the $530,000 contributed by the real estate and construction industry. But this time, candidates backed by environmentalists won all but one seat on the board because, Burton says, the incumbents’ pro-development zeal had become apparent.

In all, Loudoun supervisor candidates spent more than $2.2 million in 2007, four times what had been spent eight years earlier.

Burton said such contributions are intended to influence decisions.

“If I’m an applicant for a major rezoning and I am asking for a decision to approve my project, I stand to make millions,” he said, adding that the 2003 board simply wanted to reverse the slow-growth measures of the previous board.

In 2007, the FBI named Loudoun among five counties under investigation by the recently unveiled Northern Virginia Public Corruption/Government Fraud Task Force. Nearly a dozen federal agencies comprise the task force’s membership, including the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the IRS.

In July, the slow-growth board elected this past fall voted 8-1 to ban contributions from anyone with business before the board. The lone dissenting vote came from Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio, who collected $103,986 from the real estate and construction industries during the last election cycle.

Delgaudio said such a restriction violated constitutionally protected rights to free speech and suspected it would not hold up to a legal challenge. He referenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding an individual’s right to bear arms, and previous decisions protecting campaign contributions as a form of free speech, all based on the Bill of Rights. “If the Supreme Court can decide that I can have a gun to shoot a criminal trying to kill me or my family or harm my family, then the Supreme Court eventually someday will rule that free speech will be restored in this regard,” he said.

Public hostilities

Over the years, the steady swing of the political pendulum moved from slow-growth to pro-growth and back again with little sign of a middle ground or compromise on the horizon. Factions grew bitter toward their rivals, leading to confrontations, sometimes in open meetings of the Board of Supervisors — where opposing sides squared off with regularity.

During 2003-2007, the Piedmont Environmental Council became a particular target of scorn from the pro-growth community because of its aggressive participation in the debate surrounding most significant land-use changes. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the PEC is barred from political campaigning and must restrict its activities primarily to educating the public.

“Some people would say [that opponents of development are] a lot of rich people trying to protect their own interests,” said Greenvest supporter Roherty. Of PEC specifically, he told the Center, “They were spending a ton of money in political organizing, doing what we’re all doing, which is trying to influence the process toward outcomes that they believe are the right outcomes.”

Former Supervisor Stephen Snow, an outspoken pro-development Republican who lost his suburban Dulles District seat in 2007, says such wealthy “elitists” act as if they are more “noble” than people who live in suburban areas.

But PEC’s efforts to battle what it sees as sprawl have, at times, backfired. In one such case, when developers were contemplating building several hundred homes on the 342-acre Middleburg estate owned by Pamela Harriman, the late grande dame of the Democratic Party, PEC members encouraged Sheila Johnson to step in and protect the town’s 650 residents from such a massive influx of newcomers and avoid the visual blight of McMansions pressed right up against the 18th-century village. Johnson, a billionaire who co-founded Black Entertainment Television with her ex-husband Bob Johnson, was hailed by the PEC as a savior when, in 2001, she bought the property for $7 million with the stated intent of opening a 40-room luxury inn.

But soon, PEC turned on Johnson with a vengeance as she gradually expanded her original vision by a few dozen rooms at the time, until the proposed Salamander Inn grand resort and spa reached 168 rooms, which despite PEC’s best efforts won approval from the village and county, and is scheduled to open in 2010.

PEC’s tactics at fighting development include hiring consultants who are experts at helping residents create small grassroots entities to oppose particular proposals, which critics say enables a small group of opponents to give the impression that they represent a broad resident uprising.

Some pro-development representatives speaking before the board have questioned PEC’s use of “worst case scenario” figures when presenting its case about a project. Members of PEC acknowledge that they are subjective and aggressive in making their case, but note that their tactics are no different than their opponents’.

The bitterness endures. During a recent interview, Snow took a shot at the board’s current slow-growth majority.

“The pendulum of ignorance has swung,” he said, adamantly asserting that his philosophy of trying to approve as many developer-proposed land use changes as possible in exchange for funding to pay for roads and schools was superior to his adversaries’ view.

While the development community has focused its ire on PEC, the environmental community takes aim at Myers, whose family roots in the county reach back to the 1700s. Her staunch pro-development attitude brought a challenge for her chairwomanship in 1999 from then-supervisor Scott K. York, a Republican who represented suburban Sterling. Like Myers, York first served on the planning commission. There, he says he came to the conclusion that residential development comes at a cost in terms of service and infrastructure needs.

As an example, York points to the early 1990s, when the county opened the Route 50 corridor south of Dulles Airport to residential development. The area was historically plagued by inadequate well water and poor soils for private septic systems, thus it was of little use for farming or low-density development. The county figured that by opening it to greater densities, the developer could justify the cost of extending public water and sewer to the area. While that helped landowners who previously were unable to develop their land, it caused new concerns, York recalls, as the residents moving in began to demand services, schools, roads, a police station, a recreation center, and other amenities that the county had not yet provided to residents who had been living in Sterling’s suburban communities for decades.

“You don’t have all the facilities here in Sterling, and then you go down there and open up more development,” York complained. “Then you have to start bringing in facilities there and it kills you budget-wise. The Route 50 corridor isn’t all that old, but they want all these services yesterday.”

York defeated Myers in the 1999 Republican primary for chairman and went on to win the countywide race against the Democratic nominee and against Myers, who ran in the general election as an independent.

Throughout his term on the board, York has sought to reduce residential development options that he considers too costly for the county.

Burton, who represents a wide swatch of western Loudoun, has been an ally of York’s on most issues during their multiple board terms. Both voted with the majority when the board rejected Greenvest’s proposal in 2001. Yet, while scaling back development rights over the county’s western reaches, the board approved a massive new project along the planned Metrorail extension into eastern Loudoun.
York left the Republican Party in 2003. That year, he defeated Republican and Democratic opponents as an independent, which he remains today.

Among the first actions of the 2003 board was to strip York of many of his chairman’s duties, including the ability to set the agenda at board meetings. Myers’s chair duties were also curtailed during her term, but not to the extent of the changes imposed on York. Burton said the move against York appeared to be retaliation orchestrated by Myers’s allies.

“There was some personal vengeance involved, an extremely strong dislike for Chairman York,” said Burton. “I think that all came from the people standing in the shadows pulling the strings on several board members.”

Supervisor Bruce Tulloch, a Republican from suburban, eastern Loudoun and a protégé of Myers’s, would serve as vice-chairman throughout his term, and because he could muster a majority, he became de facto chairman.

When the Republican majority under Tulloch agreed to settle a lawsuit with Greenvest on a project the previous board had rejected, some board members complained. Noting Greenvest’s contributions, they argued it was a conflict of interest. Supervisor Sally R. Kurtz, a Democrat from the western Catoctin District, said she did not believe laws were broken, but wondered if one should be created. “The appearance is the pits,” she said. “The cronyism, favoritism sort of issues, you can’t help but think of.”

Eventually, the board approved all three Greenvest land-use proposals that had been rejected by previous boards, although with lower densities for some. Greenvest was not the original applicant on two of those projects, but purchased the land and submitted a new request. Most of those approvals came on 5-4 votes, with Republican Lori Waters breaking from her party and dissenting, joining the Democrat and two independents on the board.

Early in their term, members of the new Board complained that their predecessors had not preserved a constituent contact list for the incoming supervisors. The board approved a policy requiring such information be left for new board members.

Four Republicans tossed from office in 2007 also failed to properly preserve e-mail messages, as required by state law, because they are official business records. The lack of e-mail makes researching board decisions more difficult. That problem crossed party lines, with most supervisors failing to preserve e-mail older than six months. The county appears to have addressed the problem this year, putting a software system in place designed to preserve e-mails.

The Tulloch board regularly dragged county staff members into the growth debate, with several Republicans accusing the staff of pushing a slow-growth agenda. County Administrator Kirby M. Bowers and Planning Director Julie Pastor adamantly deny any hidden staff agenda. Bowers responded, with apparent amusement, “If I’m an obstacle to growth, I’ve been doing a pretty bad job of it, [letting this become] the highest-growth county in the nation.”

As the 2007 election neared, pro-development advocates squared off with slow-growth activists, both sides leveling conflict-of-interest accusations at key figures in Loudoun politics:

• Pro-development advocates charged that York had met in closed sessions with county planning officials regarding a request by his employer, ServiceStar, to win approvals for development on its county land.

• Slow-growth advocates complained when Snow’s employer, local contractor Dietze Construction, used his name on bid letters, suggesting he could help “overcome obstacles” in the county zoning office.

• Commonwealth Attorney James Plowman, a Republican, took no action on a request from Burton to investigate the Myers-era Board of Equalization practices regarding lowering real estate assessments, and thus cutting taxes.

• Myers then asked for, and got, Plowman to investigate PEC’s influence over the creation of traffic circles along Rt. 50, which pro-development advocates opposed. A circuit court later scolded Plowman for mishandling the investigation and dismissed the investigation’s finding that there had been a conflict of interest.

The political maneuvering occurring in Loudoun County over the past decade cries out for attention, say watchdog groups that monitor campaign contributions and scrutinize the actions of elected officials at the state and federal level. The University of Missouri’s Charles Davis, executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, notes that there is scarce attention paid at the county level.

Says Davis: “This is clearly an area that needs significant scrutiny.”

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