A common sight in Loudoun, construction vehicles continued to change the county’s landscape in 2003 as roads, schools, homes and new businesses were built to accommodate a growing population, increasing school enrollment and continuing economic development.
"Loudoun County is the envy of many communities," the county's 2003 Annual Report states. "Our economy is booming. Unemployment sits at a record low. … We are becoming known for being rich in fiber as our emerging global technology centers meet with our diverse rural economy."
Loudoun is the second fastest growing county in the nation, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2002. The county adds 15,000 to 20,000 new residents a year and is expected to reach 218,000 residents by the end of 2003. In 2002, the population was 205,800 residents, more than double the 1990 population of 86,100 residents and more than triple the 1980 population of 57,000 residents, according to the 2002 Annual Growth Summary the county released in 2003.
"Loudoun is a popular place to live and work," said Randy Collins, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. "We offer a high quality of life that people seek, and that’s great."
The county's population is expected to increase by 94,000 residents in this decade and by 48,000 residents in the 2020s, according to the Department of Economic Development. Projections show that by 2030, the county will become the second most populous county in Northern Virginia, moving up a notch from third place behind Prince William and Fairfax counties.
AS THE COUNTY grows, residential and commercial development is also continuing. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2003, the county issued 63,400 building permits and permitted 2.15 million square feet of non-residential construction. The county attracted a broad range of industries, professions and trades, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which broke ground in January, and the Prison Fellowship Ministries that broke ground in July.
"Let me assure you with every fiber of my being, this county is open for business," said Board of Supervisors chairman Scott York (R-At large) in response to criticism last spring that the county wanted to keep business growth out of Loudoun. "Loudoun County should be boasting of this accomplishment. We’re in national slump … yet Loudoun County has fared well through it."
The public schools also experienced growth, opening an average of three to five new schools a year. The district opened five schools in fall 2003 and is planning to open another three schools this fall, which will bring the total to 64 schools.
In fall 2003, student enrollment was a few hundred students higher than expected with 40,751 students. This fall, the enrollment is expected to increase to 44,000 students. To accommodate the increases, the district hired 508 teachers in fall 2003, bringing the total staff to 6,026 employees, and is planning to hire another 375 teachers in fall 2004, as outlined in the Superintendent's Proposed Operating Budget for FY 2005.
TO GET a hold on school and county growth, the Board of Supervisors took several steps in FY 2003 to implement the Revised Comprehensive Plan, the county’s 20-year guide to land use and transportation policy decisions the board established in July 2001.
After taking office in 2000, the Board of Supervisors asked the state legislature to slow the county's growth rate and was told the county already had the tools in place through its Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance.
The board adopted a revised zoning ordinance in January 2003 to carry out the Revised Comprehensive Plan, along with a new zoning map. Several landowners filed nearly 200 lawsuits in response and formed a Litigation Steering Committee to coordinate their litigations, positioning the cases for a consolidated trial in early 2004, according to Randy Minchew, Leesburg lawyer and chairman of the Loudoun County Republican Committee.
The Revised Comprehensive Plan, which includes a general and a transportation plan, aims to reduce school and infrastructure costs, alleviate future traffic congestion, protect the county’s rural economy and preserve its environmental and historical features. The plan reduces 47 percent of the housing units that can be built in the next 20 years from 370,000 to 162,000 units, cutting the potential county population from 682,000 residents to 438,000 residents.
“The General Plan is a long-term plan and as the board indicated, it will not produce immediate results, because it is designed for the future of the county,” said county administrator Kirby Bowers.
In 2003, the Planning Commission began working on aspects of the Comprehensive Plan that the board recommended as first priorities, including a bicycle and pedestrian master plan and a preservation plan that aims to protect the county's historic and cultural resources, both of which the Board of Supervisors has since adopted. The board adopted the Heritage Preservation Plan Dec. 15, 2003 to outline ways to identify, preserve and promote the county's heritage resources.
"There's a lot of history in Loudoun County that we can capitalize on for education and for tourism," said William Bogard, former supervisor for the Sugarland Run District. "Tourism is good for us. We don't wind up having to provide a whole lot of infrastructure for tourists, but we do get tax dollars."
WITH GROWTH also comes increases in the county’s annual budget to cover new infrastructure and operating costs needed to meet the demand. The county's budget in FY 2004 totaled $799.2 million with $504 million for the school system and $252 for county operations. The budget reduced county funds by $2.4 million and allowed the schools an increase of $27.9 million, $13 million less than the School Board’s request. It also provided funding for a small number of new initiatives, mostly in public health and safety, child care programs and the opening of Ashburn Library.
"I'm disappointed," said former School Board chairman Joseph Vogric. "I hope it's something that's temporary in nature, a case of hard times this year, so we don't start going backward with the improvements we made to the school system."
Even with the cuts, the real property tax rate increased in 2003 by six cents to $1.11 per $100 in assessed value. The increase and an increase in the value of residential property assessments caused the average property tax bill to go up 14 percent, or $404.
As the assessments and cost of housing increased, the lack of affordable work force housing remained an issue for the county, as pointed out in the 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 at the time cost about $250,000. According to the Economic Indicators November 2003 report, the average townhouse cost $250,000 and single-family detached homes, $426,000 in 2002 through July. Housing costs increased to $295,000 for townhouses and to $449,0000 for single-family detached homes during the same time period in 2003.
"The need is great because we have a very high demand and low supply of affordable housing," said Cindy Mester, director of the Department of Housing Services.
At the request of the Board of Supervisors, the EDC spent two years reviewing work force housing issues in the county. The EDC worked with Housing Services to review the county's policies and programs that address those issues and to propose immediate and long-range recommendations. The EDC forwarded a list of eight recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, three of which the board approved. The EDC recommended the county establish a Housing Advisory Board, partner with the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) to act as a housing authority and establish a Loudoun Housing Trust to provide a funding source for affordable housing initiatives.
BESIDES A SHORTAGE in affordable housing, the county faces a shortage in transportation infrastructure. In response, the county worked on several roadway and transit options during the last Board of Supervisors' term from 2000-03.
“Transportation is critical to the quality of life and the economic success of the county,” said John J. Clark, director of transportation for the Office of Transportation Services.
Since the office opened two years ago, the staff worked on adding new bus routes, launching a “7 to 7 on 7” bus service along Route 7 and providing a reverse commute service from the West Falls Church metro station to MCI and America Online, Inc., along with recommending the Board of Supervisors purchase a 22-commuter bus fleet at a cost of $9.5 million, which the board approved in July 2003.
Last year, the office saw several roadway projects get underway. State funding and a development proffer provided the county with more than $10.1 million to pave a 1.4-mile section of Loudoun County Parkway, or Route 607, years ahead of schedule. The gravel section extending from south of Route 7 to Redskins Park will be paved and another two lanes added to create a four-lane divided roadway.
In another transportation project, the Board of Supervisors helped break ground on two of the six proposed Route 28 interchanges that will be constructed through the Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act. The interchanges are at Routes 625 and 606.
"It's to provide another north-south link through the county other than Route 15 and Route 28," said Terrie Laycock, assistant county administrator.
In addition, the county plans to expand Claiborne Parkway to Route 7 and add an interchange there, along with turning the intersections of Loudoun County Parkway, Ashburn Village Parkway and Route 659, which runs past the new Brambleton development, into interchanges. The interchange work could take a decade or more with work being performed on an incremental basis, Clark said. “That’s a tall order. It’s not something that will happen overnight, but it eventually will happen,” he said.
At the state level, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)'s FY 2004 federal transportation spending bill included $20 million to continue rail in the Dulles Corridor from Falls Church to Loudoun County, a project expected to be completed by 2015. The bill provides the funds for the first phase of the project, bringing the total federal share to $163 million for environmental studies and project planning. The project is expected to cost $4 billion, half provided by the federal government and the rest by the state and the localities involved, including Loudoun and Fairfax counties.
Also in 2003, VDOT narrowed the number of options for the Tri-County Parkway, a north-south transportation link envisioned as a way to increase mobility and reduce congestion in a 10-mile study area. The parkway is proposed to connect the City of Manassas with Interstate-66 and the Loudoun County Parkway. VDOT expects to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) study by winter 2004, estimated to cost $3.5-4 million and funded through state and federal funds.
GROWTH HAS CONTRIBUTED to the beginning appearance of gangs, an issue that law enforcement and other county agencies are addressing. The Sheriff's Office joined the Regional Gang Task Force of public safety agencies, which addresses rising gang activity locally and regionally and coordinates law enforcement response to that activity. In July 2003, the office added three investigator positions to provide gang intelligence gathering and enforcement.
“The increase in crime is due to population increase. That’s one of the unfortunate parts of growth. You get the negative along with the positive,” said Sheriff Stephen Simpson.
The Sheriff’s Office saw an increase in assaults with the appearance of gangs, groups of people living inside and outside the county who have been involved in stabbings, larcenies from vehicles and drug trafficking in the county. In general, the Sheriff's Office has seen an increase in crime-related incidents, though the number remains lower than the national average per-capita rate, Simpson said.
In response to that increase, the Sheriff’s Office implemented a community policing unit two years ago to encourage law enforcement, businesses and communities to form partnerships and work together to improve individual communities. The unit is involved in community cleanups and graffiti removal, addresses abandoned vehicles and overgrown properties and helps coordinate improvement projects in communities and neighborhoods.
"It brings residents and police together to collectively work on issues and problems in the neighborhoods," said Sgt. Rick Frye. "We need assistance and buy-in from the businesses and residents to help us collectively problem-solve because our problems are unique and challenging. ... The traditional approach to law enforcement isn't the total answer anymore."
In April 2003, the Sheriff's Office began providing community policing out of a storefront office at the Sterling Park Shopping Mall. Besides Sterling Park, the community policing unit, which has six deputies, serves the communities of Sugarland Run, Newberry and CountrySide and has access to community policing offices in Sugarland Run, CountrySide and Pembrook.
ALSO IN 2003, the county addressed several health issues and encountered a high number of weather-related events.
The Department of Health developed plans to respond to the potential international crime of bioterrorism. The department added two bioterrorism positions after Sept. 11, 2001, including an epidemiologist in September 2002 and an emergency planner in February 2003. The department also created a mass vaccination team of medical and non-medical volunteers to prepare for the opening of emergency mass vaccination clinics in case of a bioterrorism event or an epidemic.
In addition, department officials investigated several diseases hitting the area, including malaria cases, a West Nile virus death and a probable case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
District health director David Goodfriend used several of the processes the department developed after Sept. 11 in response to the SARS threat last spring, testing the department's preparedness to handle a public health threat or a bioterrorist attack.
As for weather, a two-day snowstorm blanketed the county with two feet of snow by Feb. 24, 2003, leaving residents stranded for most of the weekend and leading to several cancellations, including the public schools' cancellation of classes for 12 days.
So far in school year 2003-04, the schools canceled classes for three days with another three days of delayed openings in response to the weather.
After the school year started, Hurricane Isabel hit Northern Virginia on Sept. 19, downing trees and power lines and leaving 10,800 Loudoun residents without power. The county had begun storm preparations the week before and opened the Emergency Operations Center that brought together county departments and agencies and emergency service providers to coordinate resources from one location.
The hurricane triggered a heavy rainstorm the night of Sept. 22, flooding several roadways in Loudoun, washing out a major Goose Creek bridge and leading to the two-day closing of Route 15. The storm dumped nearly six inches of rain on Leesburg and caused major leaking in the roof of the Sheriff’s Office administration building, where some of the office’s functions have been housed for the past 11 years on Catoctin Circle in Leesburg. The county moved the Sheriff’s Office functions, including administration, the Criminal Investigations Division and the records, property and evidence sections, to a building on Ridgetop Circle in Sterling.
On Dec. 4, 2003, a midwestern cold front blew into the region, leaving three to six inches of snow across Loudoun as snow fell from Thursday to Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. Schools were closed that day.