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Development: In the 'Wrong Place?'

Coalition initiates Campaign to Save Courtland Woods from development.

A 200-acre rural village — planned near a historical property, a nature preserve and a wetlands area — is in the "wrong place," according to a group of environmentalists and preservationists who formed a coalition this spring for the Campaign to Save Courtland Woods.

"The problem is those acres are smack in the middle of 2,500 acres that are preserved and in middle of the largest preserved area in Loudoun," said coalition member Margot Blattmann. "This development is in the wrong place. It's historic, natural and contiguous habitat for wildlife."

Coalition member Jane Morgenstern agreed. "We feel very strongly this is absolutely the worst development. It's in the wrong place," said the chairperson of Mind the Gap, which she founded more than three years ago to fight development proposed for Long Meadows, a 67-acre tract of land north of the Oatlands Plantation that Oatlands now owns. "We recognize their economic right to develop the land. However we cannot accept they have the right to do this given the cost to the community. A social right is being abused."

IN JANUARY, the Board of Supervisors approved the site plans for Courtland Rural Village nearly a decade after a former Board of Supervisors approved a rezoning request for the property. In 1994, that board rezoned Courtland Farm into the rural village and several conservancy lots, including five 100-acre parcels.

The rural village is planned for 277 housing units, mostly for single family, and a retail center. It is located south of Leesburg and east of Route 15 and sits between a wetlands area to the west and a nature preserve to the east. The builders of the Dulles Toll Road created the Dulles Toll Road Wetlands Mitigation Site by restoring 175 acres of wetlands that previously had been drained for farming. The wetlands are a half-mile from the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, a 700-acre tract of woodlands, meadows and a creek habitat that are home to several bird and wildlife species.

"It is very much how it used to be, that we can look out and see nature at its absolutely finest, that we can see what those before us could see. We see the hills of the Civil War, and we see the farmland of recovery, and we see an extraordinary natural environment that is restored," Morgenstern said.

The southern end of the rural village property is bordered by the Goose Creek, a river that meanders along the southern tip of the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve and through the wetlands area. The village sits within Courtland Woods, which has 500 acres of forests, along with woodland springs and open meadows on the former 800 to 1,000-acre Courtland Farm, said Joe Coleman, president of the Friends of the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve.

The wetlands, woods and meadows extend into the rural village property and are features that the coalition wants to save to continue the contiguous natural landscape and wildlife habitat around and within the property.

"That area is an absolutely wonderful area in Loudoun County," Coleman said. "Because it's comprised of so much varied habitat, and it's so large with meadows, forests ... all that combined makes that the richest environmental area in all of Loudoun County."

"It's unsullied. It's whole. It's what it was like years ago," Blattmann said. "You can feel the nature of the place as it was 200 years ago."

OATLANDS PLANTATION joined the coalition, which has 10 member organizations, fearing that the viewshed from the 330-acre estate would be damaged with a development located within a half-mile to the south and east of the tourism site, which includes the Oatlands mansion, a restored greenhouse and terraced gardens. The National Historic Landmark, along with Little Oatlands and Oatlands Hamlet that were subdivided from the property in 1964, are part of the Oatlands National Historic District.

"It would be like putting a town in a large park," said David Williams, coalition chairman, a board member for the Oatlands board of directors and a Washington, D.C. attorney. The Chevy Chase, Md. resident and his family own Little Oatlands, a 180-acre property south of Oatlands. "It's remarkably undeveloped given the development in the area. ... Putting a development in the middle of it will change the context of the history of the land."

Sixty to 70 percent of the houses in the development will be visible from Oatlands and the Old Carolina Road, a historic road that follows Route 15, Coleman said, adding that several historic roads will have to be destroyed for the development to be put in place.

These roads Morgenstern believes will not be able to handle traffic brought about by the development. "The quality of life of the current residents will be detrimentally affected," said Morgenstern, who lives on a dirt road along the northern edge of Oatlands. "You just don't take woods like this and a rural area and turn it into tract housing."

The developer is proffered to build a two-lane paved section of Route 650, or Gleedsville Road, to the Courtland Rural Village property and paved roads within the property, said Art Smith, senior coordinator for planning and development for the county. "We wouldn't allow that many housing units to be served by an unpaved road," he said.

THE COALITION AIMS to raise enough funds to purchase the property and add it to the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve for public access to hiking, wildlife watching and environmental education opportunities.

"We're trying to make this open space that is open to the public," Williams said.

The coalition faces a deadline of early fall when land owner Tysons-based Courtland Farms Loudoun, LLC, proposes Northern Virginia Homes to begin constructing the housing units and retail center on the site. The Trust for Public Land agreed to negotiate the purchase with the land owner.

"We're extremely far apart from the price they're willing to sell at," Williams said, adding that the coalition hopes to re-negotiate the selling price at a later date. "At the moment, we don't have a willing seller."

Bradford Kline, managing member of Courtland Farms Loudoun, LLC, disagreed. "If they raise enough money, we're willing. We're always open to listen, and if they can come up with the money, we'll talk," he said, adding that the price of $30 million mentioned in a previous public hearing would be worthy of consideration. The price would have to be approved by the building company that Courtland Farms, LLC has had a contract with since early 2001, he said. "They're aware of what numbers I could take to my builder. Right now, we haven't seen any money, and we're moving forward, and we wish them well."

Scott York (R-At large), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, wishes for the same. "It's a very unique and environmentally sensitive area, and hopefully they will be able to raise the funds to buy it from the developer and put it into permanent open space," he said.

"It's an absolutely wonderful area both naturally and historically. It's an absolutely beautiful area," Coleman said. "If saved, it will be something that will be valued forever."