Landowners Languish in Limbo

Landowners Languish in Limbo

By Jennifer Lesinski

Joe Legard's family has long roots in Loudoun County. His mother's family has lived here since before the Civil War. His parents moved to the county in the 1920s to become farmers.

That farm, located near the Berlin Turnpike, is still in the family. It is no longer the more than 1,000 acres it once was, however. A few years ago, the family partnership trust, which owns the land, sold 700 acres to pay debts. Only 250 acres remain, and Legard's brother can no longer farm the land, so the trust is once again looking to sell.

Problem is, along with others who own land in the rural policy area, the Legards are in limbo while the county decides what and how much such be built in that area.

"We're trying to develop this property É and we can't afford anything less than 3 acres [lot sizes]," Legard told the Planing Commission, Saturday, Feb. 11, at the second of two public hearings held last week on the proposed zoning changes for the rural policy area.

Legard said the trust has already spent $500,000 doing all of the studies the county requires before the property can be developed and is asking the commission consider "grandfathering" properties that have already invested time and money should the county decide to place tougher zoning restrictions on the properties in the policy area.

"Those of us that are in so deep, that it's too late to turn back, please help us," he said.

THE RURAL POLICY AREA includes more than 227,000 acres or about 67 percent of the county's total land. Six of the county's seven incorporated towns Ñ Hamilton, Hillboro, Lovettsville, Middleburg, Purcellville and Round Hill Ñ fall within the policy area. The previous Board of Supervisors placed tighter zoning restrictions on properties within the area to limit development. However, in 2005, the state Supreme Court threw out those restrictions on an advertising technicality. Instead of re-advertising the changes, the current board opted to propose a down zoning plan that was not as strict as the overturned land-use measures. In the meantime, the properties reverted back to their original zoning, which would permit one house per 3 acres. If left unchanged, that is a potential of 48,000 new homes. The proposed lower-density, AR-1/AR-2 zoning Ñ limiting development to 10- to 20-acre lots Ñ would allow about 10,130 new lots.

The Planning Commission had been given the task to review the proposed zoning changes and make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. The deadline given to the commission was March 6. However, the supervisors Tuesday approved an extension request made by the Planning Commission, giving that body until March 20 to decide to recommend the proposal as is or suggest changes. In the meantime, the A-3 zoning remains in effect, which is causing a debate equal to the one regarding the zoning itself.

BESIDES EXPRESSING their opinions about the down zoning, residents also spoke out about grandfathering properties under the current zoning whose owners submitted plans to subdivide once the Supreme Court struck down the tougher land-use controls.

"I'm an attorney representing landowners who purchased their property with reasonable expectations," said Colleen Snow. "They have begun to develop their properties under the current codes. Be fair and equitable to all property owners."

Kerry Marshall said he needs his 80 acres in Round Hill to help finance his children's education.

"I have kids that would like to go to college and I have come to realize the only way I can make that happen is to develop part of my property," Marshall said.

He told the commission he has already spent $50,000 on soil samples, $900 to have the report filed and $175,000 to have wells drilled for testing, all required by the county.

"Please grandfather property owners that have followed procedures in good faith," Marshall said.

Others were critical of the amount of time it was taking to reach a decision on the proposal and said property owners are just trying to slip in under the wire to get as much money as they can before the zoning issue is resolved by the county.

"We are very supportive of the new plan. We were supportive of the old policy that was overturned," said Mitch Diamond, reading a statement from his wife. They own a 75-acre farm north of Middleburg. "I think this is a good compromise. É If you are going to put in this new proposal do it quickly and not with grandfathering. That would diminish the whole purpose."

"My property would be A1 and it would severally limit my ability to develop and that's fine with me," said Arthur Raines of his land in Lovettsville. "I didn't come here to land speculate É to destroy the land. Either we control growth or it controls us. There are a lot of things in the pipeline. É I urge you to save what's left of western Loudoun County."

EXACTLY WHAT'S IN that pipeline is unknown, said Michael Seigfried of the Department of Building and Development Feb. 14, when asked how many plans have been submitted since the court ruling. He said the department didn't have the numbers but was researching it at the Planning Commission's request.

In an e-mail Feb. 21, Director of Planning Julie Pastor said the information concerning the number of active subdivision applications was expected to be prepared in time for the Planning Commission's work sessions schedule for March 1 and March 9.

Over the course of the two public hearings, the Planning Commission heard from more than 100 people. Once the commission makes its recommendation to the supervisors, the proposal would be subject to more hearings before any decision is made. The entire proposal is available on the county's Web site