From the shouts of "let us in" coming from people lined up outside the board room at the Loudoun County Government Center waiting to get into the Planning Commission public hearing Oct. 3, it was clear that the public wanted to have a say.
Part of the reason this issue created some noise was because this was the public's first opportunity to have input on the actual draft policy amendment, said Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPAM) Project Manager Cindy Keegan.
More than 160 citizens signed up to speak at the hearing. However, many, due to Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish holiday commonly known as the Jewish New Year, did not stay until the end. The board did express its apologies about the scheduling conflict and allowed anyone who wished to leave early to celebrate the occasion, to speak first.
Up to this point the public has only been able to sit in on the commission's work sessions and attend two community input meetings. A meeting was also held for the subarea property owners and land developers, but the draft policy had not yet been created during those initial community input meetings, Keegan said.
However, the community made sure its voice was heard. Keegan said the draft policy, made public Sept. 6, has already gone to a public hearing, usually the last step in a process like this.
"It's been fast," she said. The current plan for the Upper Broad Run and Upper Foley transition area for residential growth calls for development in residential clusters or rural villages in a pattern of only one dwelling unit per every three acres, which would increase the number of homes in the area to about 4,500 over 15 years. The current plan allows between 50-70 percent open space.
The CPAM offers a third development option in the subareas, allowing for mixed-use communities that follow a growth pattern similar to that of the suburban policy area. It suggests increasing the maximum building capacity in the Upper Broad Run subarea to four dwelling units per acre and three dwelling units per acre in the Upper Foley subarea, effectively putting about 28,000 homes on the map over the next 15 years.
DURING THE FIRST two hours of the hearing, the public was overwhelmingly supportive of the CPAM proposal.
Ron Brown, an Upper Broad Run area resident, said that he and his wife have been residents since 1985 and they are tired of feeling like prisoners in their home from the excessive dust created in the air from all the traffic back and forth on the unpaved road out in front of their home.
"Please understand, we've enjoyed 20 years of country life, but we also understand that growth happens," he said.
Brown told the commission he supports the CPAM because he knows the infrastructure changes he and his wife desire are not going to pay for themselves. Based on figures released by the county planning staff, the developers would proffer about 66 percent of the cost of county services for the area, including schools, public facilities, parks, libraries and transportation infrastructure. The total capital cost of the CPAM is $790,622,493 — of which $522,786,361 the developers have offered to cover in proffers. Under the current plan, the total capital cost for the county is $172,143,860, which rises to $267,836,132 if the CPAM is approved.
Increased traffic congestion and rising taxes are the two most debated issues concerning the CPAM proposal. CPAM proponents widely argued at the hearing that the proposal would help solve the traffic congestion since part of the proposed plan includes improvements to the existing road network to accommodate the new growth at the developers' expense.
"As I spend more and more time in traffic, it makes more and more sense that we need to support this. Moving forward with this plan proposal helps us move forward with development," said George Scott of Purcellville. "Whether CPAM passes or not, someone's going to have to pay for new roads, parks, schools and libraries. If we don't pass the CPAM, we're not going to get proffers and we're going to get stuck footing the bill."
Many of the plan proponents conceded it would be foolish not to take advantage of the developers' proffers and made points that increasing housing and making the subareas a mixed-use community would not only increase the tax base but also make housing more affordable in the area.
"We love it here. It doesn't surprise me that more people want to move out here. People are going to come no matter what. I support smart growth over no growth because no growth is just not realistic," said Ellen Miller of Ashburn. "More people will increase the tax base by tapping into increased growth in new business. I agree that we need more roads, schools, parks. But why should we pay for it, if developers are going to pay for it? This is our chance to work with the developers, tell them what we want and figure out how we can manage growth to our benefit."
George McGregor of Reed Smith, LLP, one of the six developers who submitted the CPAM, said the proposal is a direct response to the current growth trends.
"We see significant challenges facing Loudoun County: ongoing traffic, public facility conditions, high housing demands and clear affordability issues," he said. "This is an opportunity for the county to move with a comprehensive design that makes good planning sense."
BUT AS the night went on, more and more people expressed concerns and dissent for the proposed changes. Maureen Taylor, a Middlegoose-area resident for 16 years, said she and her husband chose the Leesburg area for its cultural environment, high-quality medical services, full-service shopping, seasonal weather and spacious open land.
"It's the perfect retirement area. However, I am now living in a house I could not afford to buy. My taxes have gone up so high that I'm thinking the unthinkable — leaving family and friends in this area that I love," she said. "The only way I know how to deal is by selling and moving."
Taylor said she supports bonds for new facilities and programs when the growth is reasonable and controlled but under the proposed CPAM, she envisions a future where roads will become gridlocked, taxes will increase and her quality of life will diminish.
Michael Keating, a Sugarland Run resident, said the commission should put a burden on the developers to prove that what they say they're going to do will actually work and meet the standards they should meet.
"Development is going to be problem if developers don't provide what they say, because then Loudoun County taxpayers will be stuck with the bill," he said. "Who's going to hire the teachers, buy the books and pay for the maintenance? There're too many unanswered questions and the taxpayers get stuck with the bill. All we have is lots of promises and yet to see any proof."
Planning Commission Chair Larry Beerman (Dulles) said the commission would schedule to meet again for another work session to discuss the many questions and comments brought up in the hearing. He said that he did not know when the commission would come to a conclusion on the CPAM. Because there is no timeline for the process, the decision date is at the board's leisure.
"A lot of questions have been asked tonight that we'll start looking at," he said. "This is just the beginning. You got to start someplace."