County officials have issued a stop-work order on a large-scale housing project near historic Oatlands Plantation.
The county Department of Building and Development blocked construction of Courtland Woods near historic Oatlands Plantation last week, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended its wetlands and stream-crossing permit.
Preservationists, who had sued to halt the subdivision, applauded the decisions, but the developer vowed to keep moving forward. Brad Kline, a managing member of Courtland Farms Loudoun LL, said Monday that he will work with county officials to get the order rescinded. “We’re in compliance with all of our permits,” he said. “We think, legally, we can build the project.”
The Army Corps of Engineers suspended the development permit in a settlement agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Audubon Naturalist Society. The latter parties filed suit six months ago, trying to overturn a wetlands permit issued by the Army Corps. The permit granted road and storm water infrastructure for construction of 277 houses, paved streets and retail stores on meadows and woodland directly overlooking the plantation.
IN THE “SETTLEMENT stipulation,” representatives of the three organizations decided to drop the lawsuit, and the Army Corps agreed to reopen its review of the National Historic Preservation Act of the development’s impact on Oatlands Plantation. The Army Corps also will examine ways to modify the project to avoid or minimize adverse effects on the historic property.
“From the perspective of all the preservation and conversation groups, everyone’s preference is to acquire the property,” said Elizabeth Merritt, deputy counsel of the National Trust. “If that is not possible, then our goal … is to avoid and reduce the harmful impact of development on historic properties.”
She said the non-profit organization would be ready to discuss “mitigation in detail.” That means it would allow the developer to go forward, but with modifications to reduce the impact, she said. “Overall, minimizing visibility is the goal.”
She said the National Trust would start with a list, asking the developer to build houses in areas that are not visible or are less visible from the plantation, to expand tree coverage to make the development less noticeable and to reduce the size.
COURTLAND FARMS Loudoun LL has clear cut nearly 70 acres of the 200-acre site, county officials said.
Merritt said the Army Corps has the legal authority to order the developer to remove any of the work that has been done on the wetlands, such as two storm water management ponds and an access road across Goose Creek. “Part of his gamble is that he thinks they are unlikely to do that,” she said. “It is not typical, but it has been done.”
That decision would not be made until the parties tried to work out a compromise. They plan to meet Nov. 10.
In a letter dated Thursday, Oct. 7, Terrance Wharton, director of the Department of Building and Development, wrote that the developers would need to demonstrate they have a valid wetlands permit to reinstate work.
Kline, in a telephone interview, said the developers are finished with the wetlands.
Merritt said there was a lot of confusion in the beginning, because the Army Corps had agreed to suspend work in the wetlands. The preservationists argued that county officials should suspend all construction, because the grading permits issued by the department were based on the Army Corps permit. “We weren’t sure how far we’d have to argue this out with the county,” she said. “We could not be more pleased with the response. It was even stronger than we hoped.”
Wharton, in a letter to attorney Mark Herring, wrote that his decision to issue the order was “made independent of your request.” Herring represents the Campaign to Save Courtland Woods, which has offered to buy the land to save it from development.
Kline pointed out that the campaign has not raised the money needed for the acquisition.
Andrea McGimsey, manager of the Campaign to Save Courtland Woods, said the organization is confident it could raise the funds. It wants to enter into a “buy contract,” which would allow two years to raise the money.
She said she hopes the Army Corps will look at what impact development has had on the view from Oatlands Plantation already. “They have clear cut the trees,” she said. “I don’t know how they can build a subdivision without having an enormous impact on the character of Oatlands.”
The developers should have cut the footprint of each house under a canopy of trees to mitigate the impact on the view, she said. “Right now, it is a bare hill.”
KLINE SAID the National Trust signed onto the project nine years ago after Courtland Farms Loudoun LL agreed to “lessen the impact.” The current development plan is identical to the one the Trust backed then, he said. In return for the Trust’s support, the developer agreed to proffer 600 acres, he said.
“They got the benefit of the proffers,” he said. “They know we can do this without any impact on the wetlands.”
Merritt said the plans are not “identical.”
“That is not true. We didn’t back anything,” she said Tuesday. “We said if we these mitigation measures were incorporated, then we could live with it. But they were not incorporated,” he said.
She cited a Feb. 23, 1995 letter written by George Siekkinen, senior architect of the National Trust, to Scott York, then chairman of the zoning committee. It cited several ways to soften the impact on the historic property, including maintaining the existing tree coverage to the greatest extent possible, keeping the height of visible buildings below the trees, using traditional building materials found in Loudoun’s historic residential architecture, and other criteria.
Kline charged that the National Trust filed suit to delay the project so the developer would sell it to the Trust. The National Trust recommended an “option agreement. They would try to get money from Congress and other non-profits … and buy the land.”
He said the non-profit organization offered to pay less than the $14 million that Courtland Farms Loudoun LL paid for it. The developer has paid more than $6 million more in fees, construction and engineering costs, he said. The bank appraisal now is in excess of $40 million, he added.
Merritt responded. “I don’t know anything about it. That’s irrelevant right now.”
She said the Campaign to Save Courtland Woods is trying to acquire the land. Courtland Farms Loudoun LL took a chance by proceeding with development despite the lawsuit, she said. “He knew there was a risk we might win. …. He knowingly, willingly, decided to take the gamble, to pour more money into the site.”
Merritt said the National Trust left the door open to file another lawsuit if the Army Corps did anything to violate the settlement agreement or made a decision inconsistent with the law.