Beds, Breakfasts and the Virginia Supreme Court

Beds, Breakfasts and the Virginia Supreme Court

How will the ruling that threw out slow-growth measures in the west affect the bed and breakfast industry?

The first thing to change was the night sky.

When Gail Bogert moved to her Loudoun home 14 years ago, the night was filled with stars. As the years passed, the glow of city lights gradually washed out the constellations.

Then it was the traffic. The two-lane road at the end of her driveway used to be quiet; now, the drone of passing cars starts at five in the morning.

It sounds like the story of anyone who moved to the edge of suburban Ashburn more than a decade ago and watched the neighborhoods multiply. But Bogert doesn't live in the eastern part of the Loudoun, the country's fastest growing county, where 85 percent of its population resides. She and her husband live at Buckskin Manor, a small farm and bed and breakfast in rural western Loudoun.

The city lights come from Purcellville and Charles Town, W.Va. The traffic is on bucolic Harpers Ferry Road.

The recent Virginia Supreme Court decision that threw out the strict building restrictions in western Loudoun has Bogert worried. The decision, which was based on the court's finding that the county failed to provide adequate public notice of the stricter zoning, could result in 58,000 or more homes in the western part of the county.

Buckskin Manor is both Bogert's home and her business — and she feels threatened.

"I think it's fair to say that I am a real unhappy slow-growth supporter in general," Bogert said. "In terms of business — nobody wants to go to a bed and breakfast that is surrounded by housing developments."

THE HOUSING DEVELOPMENTS to the east, however, have supplied Bogert with the majority of her business. Parents can drop the children with grandparents and drive an hour or less to Buckskin Manor for a quiet night together. And if a child gets sick, they can turn around and go home just as easily.

"That's a lot of my business," Bogert said. "At the same time, these people don't want to leave Sterling and Ashburn and come out to Sterling and Ashburn. That's what's happening here."

There's another problem: with the thousands of new homes popping up every year — and with the average price in the county heading toward $600,000 for a single-family home — the property taxes on Buckskin Manor have grown likewise. Since 2000, the taxes have increased by 29 percent.

While Bogert, who came to the country with her husband to retire, has paid off the mortgage, the property tax is now as much as a mortgage payment.

The bed and breakfast was meant to help pay for the 64-acre farm's maintenance, but as taxes have gone up, Bogert has had to expand the business rather than ease off. Two other nearby bed and breakfasts run by retired couples have gone out of business in the last few years, she said.

"They just couldn't stretch their income," she said. "They also foresaw it getting worse."

BUT WILL THE ADDITION of thousands of new homes really damage the bed and breakfast industry in Loudoun County? Just a few miles from Buckskin Manor at historic Georges Mill Farm, Steve Miller doesn't think so.

"It's going to be fantastic for business," he said. "The more people there are in the area, the better."

Miller runs a horse trail riding business out of the Georges Mill Farm Bed and Breakfast, which is run by his mother-in-law. The 200-acre farm was established before the American Revolution and has been in his wife's family ever since. Miller grew up a couple farms over.

At Georges Mill, which was once an established town with its own post office, life has evolved with the county's changing population. Before establishing the bed and breakfast and trail riding business seven years ago, Miller was a traditional farmer. He grew crops and spent long, solitary days on a tractor — days he admits he misses.

But as he watched the farms around him disappear, he knew Georges Mill couldn't stay part of the past forever.

"WE RECOGNIZED that we weren't making any money," Miller said. "We thought, how can we keep the farm and change the way we do business?"

The answer was easy: "People love to ride horses."

These days, Georges Mill Farm is a thriving business that has had visits from Russian ambassadors and Chinese news agencies — but the majority of visitors come from the Washington, D.C., area. Each visitor takes one of the farm's 25 well-trained horses on a two-hour ride through gentle meadows, steep hills and knee-deep waters.

The new population means more potential riders to Miller, but he also thinks the bed and breakfast will thrive, pointing out that it's a nice place to keep the relatives when they come for a visit.

Miller is pragmatic about the future of Loudoun County.

"There are so many planned homes in the county anyway," he said. "It's coming, no matter what the zoning was then or now."

IT MAY SOUND like common sense: with its dual roles as suburbia and countryside, Loudoun is viewed by visitors as "a beautiful scenic area for leisure with all the amenities for business," according to a study undertaken by Randall Travel Marketing at the behest of the Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association.

The study also found that the county's tourism industry is doing very well, having weathered the post-Sept. 11, 2001 dip in business. In 2003, 59.8 percent of the hotel rooms in the county were full. In 2004, that number jumped to 68.3 percent.

The study also noted just how important tourism is to the tax base. Last year, each resident saved $511 in taxes that was offset by visitor spending.

That follows the logic of Chris Needels, president of the Mosby Heritage Area Association. The group, which is comprised of landowners, businesses, Civil War buffs and more in five counties including Loudoun, has a mission of preserving open spaces and historic resources. Its members have been buzzing with talk of the end of growth restrictions in western Loudoun.

"Bringing in more residences is actually tax-negative, but tourism is revenue-positive," Needels said.

According to the Rural Economic Development Council's 2003 Annual Report, studies recommended that Loudoun use "more aggressive marketing" of the county as a bed and breakfast destination.

But with the possibility of thousands of new homes, Needels isn't as sure as Miller that the county's 20 bed and breakfasts will thrive.

"This would be devastating to the bed and breakfast industry," he said. "People come out to places like Middleburg and Upperville because they're trying to get away from suburbia."

WHILE THE SUPREME COURT decision was a shock to slow-growth advocates who fought tooth and nail for the stricter zoning with the idea of protecting rural areas, the decision doesn't necessarily mean the paving over of all Loudoun's expanses.

According to the Piedmont Environmental Council, there are 32,000 acres in the county under conservation easements. That means that the land can never be significantly subdivided. How many times it can be split depends on the type of easement, but it generally protects against anything approaching suburbia.

Bogert's Buckskin Manor is under a conservation easement. Georges Mill Farm is not.

Out at Oakland Green Farm near Lincoln, owner Jean Brown said the conservation easement on the 200-acre farm and bed and breakfast protects her land. Like Georges Mill Farm, Oakland Green has been in the same family — her husband's — for eight generations.

"We will not have subdivisions surrounding us, I imagine," Brown said.

The two identities of Loudoun County have served Brown well. Her daughter and son-in-law live on the farm; she works at AOL and he's a graphic designer. The farm, which sells premium beef, and the bed and breakfast are doing well — the latter being booked through June already.

Still, Brown is worried about the future for Loudoun outside of Oakland Green's protected acreage. She ran for the state legislature three times on a slow-growth platform.

"I'm hoping this Board of Supervisors get to see the wisdom of keeping rural businesses affluent," she said. "Tourism is a major contributor to the rural economy."

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