Skip to comments.In a fast-growing county [Loudoun], sprawl teaches hard lessons
Posted on 01/23/2006 8:15:38 PM PST by Lorianne
Virginia's Loudoun County is 'a little test tube' for coping with hypergrowth on the far fringes of many American cities. ___ LEESBURG, VA. A decade ago Virginia's Loudoun County, tucked 25 miles from Washington, D.C., at the West Virginia border, was best known for its pastoral horse country and gracious farms. Today it's the poster child for development run amok.
Just ask Juan Bocher, whose commute to his job just outside Washington has gone from 30 minutes to nearly 90. "It's gone from bad to worse, and there's no end in sight," he says.
Or Nancy Meissner, who lives in what remains of rural Loudoun County, where McMansion-style subdivisions are being built with septic tanks because there are no water lines. "This awful sludge is bubbling out of the ground," she says. "And these are the new septic systems that are already failing!"
The growing pains of Loudoun, the nation's fastest-growing county in the past five years, not only has residents up in arms, but have also drawn the attention of land-use experts across the United States. That's because exurbs - suburbs at the fringes of metropolitan areas - are growing faster than any other kind of community, according to census data. While high-speed growth has transformed suburbia for decades, what is new - and worrying - is that it's now occurring in areas without the infrastructure or experience to deal with it, these experts say.
"How Loudoun deals with its growth can teach the rest of the country a great deal," says James DeFrancia, a trustee of the Urban Land Institute. "It's become a little test tube."
The hypergrowth has political ramifications, too. Last fall, traditional Republican strongholds like Loudoun County and other Virginia exurbs voted for Tim Kaine, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who won on a platform of controlled growth and traffic management.
"It is unusual that Kaine won in all of the traditionally Republican exurbs," says Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "The obvious lesson for politicians is to pay attention to how much development people can tolerate. It's limited."
Loudoun County's growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. Spurred by the Washington area's boom in high-tech and government jobs, along with the search for affordable housing in Washington's sizzling real estate market, its population has tripled in 15 years. In the past five years alone, it surged 46 percent, from 169,599 to 247,293. In 2004, its growth accounted for one-quarter of the population increase throughout the Washington metro area - itself one of the fastest- growing parts of the US.
The effects of such rapid development have been intense. At rush hour, rural Loudoun's scenic two-lane byways crawl with traffic that moves more slowly than the new six-lane access road to the east. Air quality has worsened as smog levels have shot up. As thousands of new houses go up each year ahead of water and sewer lines, residents face water shortages and newly polluted streams. If current growth continues, the county estimates it will need 125 grammar schools in the next 15 years.
Land-use experts say what's happening in Loudoun today will challenge communities on the outer fringes of cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Seattle over the next 20 years.
"Loudoun is the poster-child example of what can happen when a community is developing too fast," says Laura Olson of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "It can't keep up with schools, services, roads, recreation - and especially water and septic needs."
Land-use experts say there's only one solution: heavy regulation. "The trouble with managing smart growth is that it requires almost complete governmental control," says Anthony Downs, a land-use analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. Downs and others call for regulated "smart-growth" zoning, with dense, mixed-use developments alternating with swaths of open land. They also stress the need for regional planning, which they say is lacking in many metropolitan areas facing exurban sprawl.
Until recently, such tight zoning regulations would have been unthinkable in a place where landowners cherish their autonomy and fight down-zoning.
But lately, "the outcry to do something about the growth has been a lot louder" than the outcry for property rights, says Jim Burton, who sits on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. "The great American dream is turning into the great American nightmare."
After years of political battles, Loudoun officials last spring drew up a zoning plan with input from experts like Downs, which would have limited development in rural parts of the county and encouraged denser, mixed-use, mixed-income growth in the developed parts. The Supreme Court of Virginia threw out the plan, on a technicality, and county planners hope the plan will be approved this year after a rewrite.
Meanwhile, development is "nearly a free-for-all," says county planner Julie Pastor, as builders rush to start projects before regulations are in place.
That's where other communities on the fast-growth path should watch and learn, says Mr. DeFrancia. "The lesson to be learned is to put in a master plan and rigidly adhere to it."
It's nightmarish. Here in MA, all the small towns I grew up around are choked with traffic. It's all new people, nobody knows each other, and town politics have turned absurd and vicious.
I hate it.
I was shocked when Kaine carried Loudon.
Those with families going back generations didn't choose this, and some of them do, in fact, find guns to their heads with all of the crime problems that didn't exist before urban influence appeared out of nowhere.
They didn't choose to live this way. They'd move to Loudoun County and then find that all the countryside surrounding them was suddenly developed, with thousands upon thousands of new homes. They voted out of office the local officials who permitted this development and elected officals who favored slow growth. But proponents of slow growth who represented the views of the people were overridden by state legislators in Richmond. Developers make very generous campaign contributions of state legislators, of course, and those legislators vote as they are told to.
And of course there are many here on FR who say that landowners (read: developers) should be permitted to develop land in any way they like, no matter how miserable it makes everybody.
There is the key quote, right there. There is a CRISIS! It's BUSH'S FAULT! Oh the HUMANITY!
Both with issues like development planning, and also a lot of social issues, a lot of people on FR want complete and utter freedom for themselves, but want what everyone else does completely controlled.
Government planning and zoning is typically routinely attacked, right up until somebody has something they don't like built next to their house.
If you want an example of development run amok, take a look at Southeastern PA. Greedy developers and politicians just expanding the tax base, and to hell with the unintended(or intended) consequences.
The insistence by employers on the daily physical presence of employees in offices far from their homes has a lot to do with it. Of course, with the passing of Sarbanes-Oxley and the attendant risk of jail for CFO's who allow the wrong information to make its way off-site, telecommuting has been strangled in the cradle.
I remember in the 50's driving through a red light intersection of 2 two-lane roads on my way to grandma's house in Leesburg. That was back when Tysons Corner was really a corner! Two lanes all the way from Falls Church to Leesburg. /nostalgia
Government sold everybody out with ridiculous rates of illegal and legal immigration. Now it's a free for all. In the end it's the peoples fault for not demanding more of their politicians.
They did not choose to live that way. Greedy developers and politicians forced that way of life on them.
They did choose to live that way, by default. They must have been disengaged from their local political process...how many of the people now complaining attended any of the hearings at the P&Z meetings or lobbied for land development regulation changes? By and large development is a local process and does respond to the electorate.
The logical difficulties the ultra-free-enterprise Freepers do not address begin with these:
First, no investor is entitled to have legislation, and the American taxpayer, protect his investment. Yet this is what landowners often do. Owning land with the expectation that it can be developed constitutes making an investment. And when landowners demand that government change rural zoning to accommodate their desire to make a profit, they are asking the people to guarantee that their investment in land was a profitable one.
Second, as this article spells out, when landowners make this profit everyone else suffers for it. Property taxes skyrocket to pay for the new roads, schools, police and fire protection, water, garbage removal and disposal, etc. etc. etc. Children can't get educated in the local schools anymore. Crime, noise, pollution, and crowding increase. People can't even be with their families because they're spending half their lives trapped in traffic. Don't tell me that developers have the right to impose this misery on everybody else.
Of coursse we are told that if we don't like the current situation we are free to move. This is true. But the only places that don't have problems like this soon would if we all left and moved there! Besides, we would all be spending six hours every day in our cars, commuting from rural areas and creating even more traffic nightmares.
Thank God some places like Rappahannock County have learned from the mistakes of Loudoun and don't permit much in the way of development. I've heard that Rappahannock doesn't even have a McDonald's in it. Wish I could figure out a way to earn a living there.
I do not mean to undermine your distress, as I too hate populated areas, but you have free will. If it is not your property, then you haven't the right to dictate who builds on it or moves into your town/city. You do have the right to move, however, since you are now the one who is not happy with the new make-up of your community.
Why do those who already reside in a community so often feel that they have the right to determine the growth of that community? If townspeople want to leave "green space" then they can vote to raise their own taxes to purchase lots. The community dictating what happens with other people's property is Marxism and is essentially a partial taking of that property (inverse condemnation.
"Those with families going back generations didn't choose this, and some of them do, in fact, find guns to their heads with all of the crime problems that didn't exist before urban influence appeared out of nowhere."
Generational inheritance or nostalgia doesn't give you the right to dictate who purchases property. You can, however, vote and enforce laws....or move.
No. They did lobby and fight. They showed up at planning commission hearings and screamed. But their desires were overridden by state legislators in Richmond who are owned by developers. In Virginia recent Virginia Supreme Court decisions confirmed that Richmond's power supercedes that of local government on such issues.
I am sorry to say that many of the pro-growth legislators are Republicans, and some people voted for them only because they could not endure the detestable Democratic candidates who might have put more of a brake on development. It's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.
"Juan Bocher, whose commute to his job just outside Washington has gone from 30 minutes to nearly 90."
Ok Juan is just stupid. Get a job closer to home and it will cut down on all that traffic. Loudoun is still nice, despite what some complainering weiners say.
"And of course there are many here on FR who say that landowners (read: developers) should be permitted to develop land in any way they like, no matter how miserable it makes everybody"
Clearly it doesn't make the "thousands" and thousands who are flocking to the area miserable. Developers are landowners and are in the business of making profit. It is called the free market and anyone who wishes to participate in it if can do so they are ambitious enough.
Also, this country is vast enough to live in a rural setting for those who feel cramped. I, for one, have chosen to do this, and when my area becomes too developed for my taste, I'll up and go.