Again, growth is a top issue for Loudoun County and again, other issues, such as identifying affordable housing, addressing the onset of gang activity and facing increased congestion, are the result.
"People are still coming to Loudoun, relocating to Loudoun in a big way," said Randy Collins, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, in response to the county's 2002 Annual Growth Summary released earlier this year. "Ironically, the fast-growing nature of the county has helped us through a downturn in the economy."
Loudoun survived the recession that began in 2001 and the economic after-effects of the recent information technology shakeup and the war in Iraq. As reported by the U.S. Census Bureau last year, Loudoun moved up a notch from the third to the second fastest growing county in the nation. The county's population reached 205,800 residents in 2002, more than triple the 57,000 residents living in the county in 1980.
"Loudoun County will continue to grow based on its availability of housing units and what we anticipate in terms of non-residential construction," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (R-At large).
Each year, the county attracts 12,000 to 15,000 new residents, or about 6 to 7 percent new growth. The county's population is expected to reach 218,000 residents by the end of 2003 and to hit the 300,000 mark by 2010, the same year the county is expected to rank as the third largest employment center in the region. For three decades until 2030, the county is projected to lead Northern Virginia in employment growth.
"We've seen employment growth in Loudoun County in contrast to declines nationally," said Sean Lacroix, regional economist for the Department of Economic Development. "Part of that was because Loudoun's economy was healthy and vibrant and was able to withstand a national recession."
WITH COUNTY GROWTH comes school growth. Loudoun County Public Schools has responded by building and opening new schools at an average of three to five schools each year. The county opened five schools in fall 2002 and is planning to open another five schools this fall, bringing the total for the county to 61 schools. The new schools will include Dominion High School in Sterling, Belmont Ridge Middle School in Lansdowne, Countryside Elementary School in Sterling, Frances Hazel Reid Elementary School in Leesburg and Mountain View Elementary School north of Purcellville.
The new schools accommodate a growing student population, which has more than doubled from Fiscal Year (FY) 1993 with 15,800 students to a projected 40,100 students in FY-04. The population for FY-03 was 37,500 students and is expected to increase 7.2 percent this fall.
The students come from a diverse area, internationally and nationally. Several students speak English as a second language, speaking a total of 64 languages with the majority being Spanish. The schools provide a parent liaison program to encourage parents to attend special events where translators are provided, along with English as a Second Language and outreach programs for minority students aimed to prevent disenfranchisement.
"It really has not been a problem," said Wayde Byard, press officer for the Public Schools. "People are very accepting of diversity here."
Besides constructing new schools each year, the school district faces hiring teachers to staff the new schools and replace those who retire or leave the school system. This year, the district plans to hire 300 teachers, 200 less than average, since the district will cut back any new positions to compensate for the $10 million the School Board did not receive from the Board of Supervisors for the FY-04 operating budget.
"We have to look at every expense we have," Byard said. "Every year, we are looking at ways to make our services more efficient."
The Board of Supervisors approved a $789 million budget last March with $504 million allotted to the public schools. The budget required the tax rate the county assesses on real property to increase six cents to $1.11 per $100 in assessed value.
"I think it's the best we can do this year," said Supervisor William Bogard (R-Sugarland Run), at the March 18 Board of Supervisors meeting when the FY-04 budget was approved. "This is a bad year. The state is certainly not going to come through with the money. The federal government is going to be tight. We don't have anyone to foist it onto."
FACING COUNTY and school growth and a tight budget year, the county continued to grow in 2003 and is expected to do so in 2004. The county saw a 34.2 percent increase in nonresidential construction from 2002 to 2003 in the months of January to June and 44.1 percent in residential construction during the same time period. As for current and future commercial construction, the county established several business and economic development opportunities in 2003:
* MCI named Ashburn as its headquarters in May.
* Howard Hughes Medical Institute broke ground in May at Janelia Farm Research Campus for a biomedical center, which will open in early 2006.
* The First Responders Training Center will be located at the George Washington University Loudoun campus, a decision made in February.
* Tourism increased 11.3 percent this year from 2002.
* Retail vacancies are down 3 percent this year.
While the county may be growing, a lack of affordable work force housing has become a concern, as pointed out in a 2003 Economic Development Commission (EDC) report. Through surveys and interviews, the EDC found that employees in critical occupations, such as firefighters, construction laborers, cashiers and retail salespersons, do not earn wages high enough to purchase the average townhouse in the county, which costs about $250,000. The EDC made eight recommendations to improve the county's housing situation, three of which county housing staff forwarded to the Board of Supervisors for final approval at the July 21 board meeting.
"The realization of those affordable housing issues we did in that process will direct where the county will be going in the next year," said Cindy Mester, director of the county's Housing Services.
Housing staff recommended the county establish a Housing Advisory Board to evaluate housing supply and demand issues, partner with the Industrial Development Authority to finance affordable housing construction and establish a Loudoun Housing Trust to provide a funding source for affordable housing initiatives. The staff will develop an implementation plan to carry out the recommendations for board approval in September.
Tying in with the recommendations, the county has reached the 200,000 population threshold for Housing and Urban Development to deem the county eligible for a Community Development Block Grant, money that can be used to produce affordable housing units and rehabilitate existing units in targeted areas, as long as 51 percent of the residents are low to moderate income.
"The general status is that we have an affordable housing crisis for work force housing as well as for special populations [homeless, low-income, elderly and disabled residents], but I am very optimistic that in over the next year, we can have a positive impact on that issue," Mester said.
ANOTHER ISSUE the county faces is congestion, which can be addressed by improving the county's transportation network. "Transportation is critical to the quality of life and the economic success of the county," said John Clark, director of transportation for the Office of Transportation Services, which the county opened in 2001.
Clark, who has been with the office for one-and-a-half years, is focusing on marketing and improving the county's commuter bus service, which has since experienced a 50 percent increase in ridership. The county added new routes and a reverse commute route and is considering purchasing a commuter bus fleet, instead of contracting operations through another company that provides its own buses.
"We can’t build ourselves out of congestion. We’re just beginning now to address that fact," said Chip Taylor, program manager for county public transportation and transportation operations. "We recognize that public transportation will have to play a more significant role."
In addition to transit, Clark plans to address highway concerns in the next year, identifying how the county can fund and provide alternate routes to Routes 7 and 28, two of the main thoroughfares in the county.
"It's looking at areas that are congested," Clark said. "As the county grows, the transportation needs of the county grow even faster. We need to position ourselves to make the needed improvements. We are well on our way on the transit side. We have further to go on the highway side."
In addition to growing transportation needs, growth has contributed to the beginning appearance of gangs, an issue that law enforcement agencies, the public schools and other county agencies are addressing. In July, the Sheriff's Office added four investigator positions to form a team which will provide for gang intelligence gathering and enforcement. In addition, the office joined a regional gang task force of public safety agencies, which addresses rising gang activity locally and regionally and coordinates law enforcement response to that activity.
"This gang problem is a regional problem, not just a local problem. It needs to be dealt with that way," said Sheriff Stephen Simpson.
The Sheriff's Office is a member of the Gang Response Interagency Team (GRIT), along with the public schools and human services agencies in the county. GRIT, which meets on a monthly basis, identifies ways to support the Sheriff's Office and to provide recreational and intervention programs for at-risk youth.
"We really do a great job in keeping kids busy, particularly in sports, in this county. We need to be focusing on kids in the future," said Candy DeButts, deputy county administrator.
Security specialists are at all high schools in addition to the School Resource Officers the Sheriff's Office provides.
"Right now, we haven't seen overt gang activity in the schools," Byard said. "Of course, we're vigilant. You have to be on the lookout for it."
Jim Barnes, public information officer for the county, pointed out that the county's approach to growth, the budget and the other county issues may change with a new Board of Supervisors, which takes office in 2004. "To me, the election will determine the approach the county will take over the next four years with these issues," he said.