Virginia Supreme Court Surprise Ruling

Virginia Supreme Court Surprise Ruling

Court rules that 2003 decision to dramatically lower amount of homes allowed in western Loudoun is invalid due to insufficient public notice.

The Supreme Court of Virginia has thrown out the downzoning enacted in 2003 by the Board of Supervisors which drastically reduced the number of homes that could be built on 350 square miles of the county.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the county failed to comply with public notice requirements and failed to properly define terms, overturning a decision by the Loudoun County Circuit Court.

The decision has thrown the ongoing debate about how the country's fastest growing county will continue to evolve into a tailspin, with critics worrying about rampant growth and proponents calling it a victory for property rights.

A LITTLE HISTORY: in 2000, the Board of Supervisors began an arduous three-year process to overhaul the General Plan. Information on the proposed changes was placed in the county government building in Leesburg as well as in libraries and on the Internet. A hot line set up to answer questions got a thousand calls, according to Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman. The county advertised in newspapers and sent out 64,000 letters four different times to notify landowners of four different public hearings.

When the new zoning was enacted in January 2003, 200 landowners filed suit within 30 days. The new zoning greatly reduced the number of homes that could be built by right on 350 square miles of western Loudoun by 58,000 homes, according to the Revised General Plan.

Under the 2003 Revised General Plan, most land in western Loudoun was rezoned to A-20 or A-50, meaning that landowners could only build one home per 20 or 50 acres.

Now that that's been thrown out, those same landowners can build one unit per three acres, meaning anywhere from 58,000 to 83,000 new homes could be built in western Loudoun County by right — that means without a single developer proffer to help offset the increased demand on services.

"IT STINKS," said Bob Lazaro, a Purcellville Town Council member. "It's going to mean more traffic, more congestion, higher county taxes, higher debt for the county."

Hamilton Mayor Keith Reasoner was unnerved by the ruling as well. "My big concern is, if they build all these damn houses, what are we going to do with all the cars that come out of them?" he said.

Lazaro argued further that the downzoning was overturned on a technicality, rather than on the merits.

"If it was on the merits, we would've cleaned their clock," he said.

Both Hamilton and Purcellville will likely pass resolutions requesting that the county readvertise and re-enact the 2003 zoning.

The three supervisors who were on the board when the downzoning was approved (and supported it; Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio is the one incumbent exception) requested that the county do just what the towns of Purcellville and Hamilton want: redo the public process and re-enact the stricter zoning.

"I am perplexed by the court's ruling," said Chairman Scott York (I-At Large). "The consequence of allowing further over development in our county would be devastating to the taxpayer and our commuters."

As of press time, supervisors are awaiting a briefing from their attorneys before making any decisions. The briefing will likely take place in an executive session after the board's March 15 regular business meeting.

IT'S UNKNOWN at this point whether the Republican majority of the Board of Supervisors — five of whom were elected since the 2003 downzoning — will heed the minority's call for re-enactment, but it is unlikely. Votes on rezonings in the past year have followed a fairly steady 6-3 vote, with minority supervisors York, Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin) and Jim Burton (I-Blue Ridge) voting against higher density projects.

Still, Vice Chairman Bruce Tulloch (R-Potomac) said reaction was muted when the majority learned the supervisors they had defeated in the previous election had had their most major move invalidated by the Supreme Court.

"There wasn't a lot of gloating," Tulloch said. He did castigate the former board for incurring so much litigation: "You can't get this number of lawsuits and not have issues ... it's a key indication that something went wrong."

Supervisor Stephen Snow (R-Dulles) ran on a platform opposing the Revised General Plan, and was less cagey about his reaction to the court's decision.

"All citizens in Loudoun County win," he sad. "It's a good day for law."

Lazaro, over in Purcellville, disputed Snow's assertion. "The real losers are all the residents of Loudoun, regardless of east or west or north or south," he said. "Anyone who thinks that 50,000 more houses makes anyone a winner doesn't have a firm grasp on what's going on in Loudoun."

ZONING ADMINISTRATOR Artman was deeply involved in the three-year downzoning process and said she felt "a great sense of disappointment" in the court's decision.

"There was tremendous public outreach," Artman said.

Now, the invalidation of the downzoning raises a host of new questions about the 3,000 building permits issued since January 2003.

"I'm concerned about the folks who have developed under the new regulations that have been thrown out and whether they're adversely affected," Artman said.

New development brings with it the potential for more affordable housing in Loudoun — and with single-family, detached homes going at an average of $556,973 these days, affordable housing is extremely desirable. It also brings with it a massive new population that could double, or potentially triple, Loudoun's size in the next 20 years.

Grappling with already exploding student population growth has been the School Board's main focus in past years. School Board member Priscilla Godfrey (Blue Ridge) was alarmed by the possibility of thousands of new homes and thousands of new students.

"I'm not sleeping well at night," she said. "I'm still in a state of shock."

MANY LOUDOUN County citizens are alarmed as well. At Tuesday night’s Board of Supervisors public hearing, an over-capacity crowd required the Fire & Rescue Department to ask some to leave to meet regulations.

Malcolm Baldwin, a sheep farmer who owns 30 acres near Lovettville, stood outside the government center with two members of his flock to protest the Supreme Court’s decision. One wore a helpful sign: "Re-Advertise & Re-Enact."

"I don’t want to pay for the increased schools the development brings," Baldwin said. "There’s no question that farming doesn’t require all those expenditures."

While the majority of the attendees wore Campaign for Loudoun’s Future buttons and spoke out against the Supreme Court decision, a few came toting "No Snob Zoning" signs and supported the decision.

"Please recall that that it is very easy for citizens, at no cost to themselves, to demand that landowners give up their property rights," said Rose Ellen Ray. "Coercion is not the American way. Property owners can voluntarily reject development on their own property."

Connection reporter Andrea Zentz contributed to this report.