The eye of the storm over western Loudoun zoning is this: how many houses per acre can still allow rural business and lifestyle to flourish?
But while county officials wrangle over numbers — one house per three acres; no, one house per 20 acres, yes, that's the ticket; or is it one house per seven and a half acres with a clustering option? — few have stated the obvious: that rural lifestyle and development have always been at odds in this fair county.
Even in eastern Loudoun, which not too long ago was home to huge dairy farms, the few farmers that are left have struggled to adjust to their new cul-de-sac'd neighbors.
Over on Poland Road, just east of South Riding, there once were seven farming Poland families on a land that was part of an original 400-acre tract bought by Alpheus Poland a century ago.
Now, there's two families; Charles and Betty Poland and Charles' 92-year-old mother, on 30 acres in the shadow of million-dollar homes on a man-made ridge.
The Polands keep a small herd of beef cattle on the land. The cows live like cows, wallowing in mud when it's hot and grazing in the sun when it's cool.
Charles and Betty live with near-constant drilling and everyday blasting from nearby construction, and have for the last five years. As South Riding has crept closer and closer over the years, their viewshed, property taxes and livestock's safety has changed forever.
What was once a far-off look at the Blue Ridge Mountains is now the mountains plus rows of identical rooftops. The Polands' property taxes have increased nearly twofold in five years.
And last year, a subcontractor working on a neighboring new subdivision took down the Polands' fence, setting 11 black Angus cattle free in South Riding.
"That puts fear in the heart of anyone that owns livestock," Betty Poland said. "You don't want them walking down a subdivision's main drag."
The cows were found on Planting Field Drive, heading home — thankfully before any panicked or were hit by a car. "They didn't like it in South Riding," she said.
BETTY AND CHARLES both come from traditional farming stock. Charles worked on the Poland farm, fetching and grading chicken eggs. Betty's family, the Browns, were among Loudoun's original Quaker settlers.
The Brown family farm is now a subdivision near Lincoln in western Loudoun: Brown's Farm, it's called, dotted with houses. Part of the original farmhouse remains.
So while they try to commune with their new neighbors and subdivisions' high-turnover lifestyle, the Polands sometimes struggle for a meeting of the minds.
"The people in South Riding, they all like the open land," said Charles, an historian and Northern Virginia Community College professor. "Some of them are even sympathetic. Then you have a large population, that you don't know what to think."
"And some are outright hostile," Betty said. She recalled a zoning meeting where a resident told the Polands to move away if they didn't like what was coming.
But compared to some of their farming friends, the Polands feel lucky with their neighbors. So far, they've had no problems with teenagers harassing the cows or dogs getting in the field.
A quick survey of all the Polands' neighbors to the immediate east with a view of the field and pond found a unanimous response: they love living next door to a farm.
"The kids love it," said Carissa Morris. "They love to see the cows. It's nice to have this view close to the city."
"It's beautiful. We love the view," said Shivane Sharma.
"It's great — no other houses," said Shawn McGregor.
"Love it," said Rick Loop. "It gives a rural feel without living in the sticks."
Neighbors often tell the Polands how they hope they'll never sell, that their land will stay a farm forever.
"Well, folks, the fact that you moved in ain't helping any," Charles said.
But they hope never to move, he added. His mother should die on this land. While the land is worth millions, moving is something Charles — who says he doesn't adjust to change well — can barely contemplate. He pauses for a long time before even saying that.
SO CAN SUBURBIA and rural lifestyle coexist?
"Traditionally, it hasn't," Charles said. "There's a conflict of totally different lifestyles." The major trend of American history, he notes, has been from an agrarian to a suburban culture.
He has a well-founded perspective. Not only has he had a lifetime to watch his father's friends' farms disappear into developments, he is also Loudoun's resident historian. His book of Loudoun history, "From Frontier to Suburbia," comes out in its second edition later this summer.
Not only is farming life demanding, thankless and low income, it also requires a long-term view that quick-turnover subdivisions just don't provide. And relatively tiny five- or 50-acre "rural economy lots," as county officials are calling them in the western Loudoun zoning debate, won't foster real, traditional farming, which requires hundreds of acres.
"You'll never see traditional farming come back," Charles said. "It's tough to raise beef cattle next to a subdivision when fences are going to be torn down."
While Loudoun only has one dairy farmer left, beef cattle have grown in number in recent years to 34,000 head in the county, according to the 2003 Rural Economic Council Annual Report.
The Polands keep their cows, just a small number, for both emotional and rational reasons. First, because it's tradition, as Betty said. Second, because without the farm-use tax break, the property taxes on the Poland farm would be prohibitive, Charles said.
Betty is slightly more optimistic than her husband when it comes to the future of Loudoun's farmers and their relations with new neighbors.
"Yes, I think it's possible," she said. "It's going to take an enormous amount of understanding and tolerance, both on the part of the rural person and the people living there."
The Polands are careful to run their tractors only during hours where few neighbors might be sleeping, but some farm life realities — like cow manure — can't be controlled.
"Sometimes the wind blows the wrong way, and that's just a fact of life," Betty said.