From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

Not In My Backyard….

By Julie Reardon

Not In My Backyard….

A pandemic-led renewed interest in outdoor spaces and gardening, telecommuting for work and social distancing have, not surprisingly, fed a boom in purchase of rural properties in both Fauquier and western Loudoun County.  People are moving to rural areas faster than the housing stock can keep up. Inventory is at historic lows as listings are gobbled up, some at above asking price, as soon as they hit the market. While some come from other states, people moving further out from the crowded suburbs in Northern Virginia are fueling this boom market.

Once they’ve settled in, most of these former urban residents circle the wagons and become anti-development activists. Now that they have their own slice of heaven, they think no one else should be allowed to move out to the hunt country and they become among the most vociferous activists against any proposed or future development—even those permitted by the county they live in. “I’ll move!” fumed one new owner near a proposed subdivision, even though she had just moved to Fauquier herself a year ago from Fairfax.

Two proposed subdivisions for new homes near the village of Middleburg had new as well as longtime residents organizing protests and activism on social media. One subdivision was the development of a 600 acre farm east of town into 38 luxury homes. This subdivision proposed to take advantage of existing Loudoun County zoning by putting up the maximum number of allowed houses but clustered together on smaller lots with the rest placed in open space easement. It caused a furor among the residents, specifically the horsey set. They’d grown accustomed to fox hunting and trail riding over the land. Even though the number of lots was a by-right division, Loudoun allows for “bonus density” (more houses) if some of the land is left in open space easement so naturally the developers took full advantage, angering neighbors and residents with what they felt was an excessive number.  

The second subdivision just northwest of town proposed 27 houses on minimum-sized lots near the village of St. Louis, just northeast of Middleburg. St. Louis has existed since at least the 1800s, founded by formerly enslaved people. Some of their descendants still live there today. It has about 90 homes, many of which already have water and well problems that the addition of 27 more homes would overtax. John Lovegrove, an engineer who serves on a county committee that oversees technical aspects of development, noted this area and much of western Loudoun County has had problems with wells running dry and/or producing smelly, undrinkable water. He pointed out that the development might cause some residents to need new wells that they could not afford. Both projects are currently pending review and lawsuits.

In Fauquier, a 22-lot subdivision almost right in the village of Orlean is causing an uproar with the neighbors. Even though the developer, who also lives near the proposed subdivision, was entirely within his rights to divide the two adjacent properties, one he’d owned for a long time and one recently purchased, opposition ran high, especially among the newest residents. “By right does not mean it’s not subject to review,” said Kevin Ramundo, who heads a local group, Citizens for Fauquier County. He’s intimately familiar with the comprehensive plans of both Loudoun and Fauquier counties and what is and is not allowed per their zoning laws. “It just means it’s not subject to the public hearing process and nowhere near as rigorous of an approval process as needing to get a parcel rezoned or apply for a special exemption permit,” said Ramundo.

While growth in Northern Virginia (Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William) continues, it has progressed at a slower pace in the past 5 years. The slowed rate is not true of the rural counties around it. Loudoun County has regularly appeared on the list of the 10 fastest growing counties in the country and tops the list of fastest-growing in the state by numbers. But Loudoun is heavily developed in its eastern end, where most of the growth has occurred. West of Rt. 15 and Leesburg, the county has tried to preserve agriculture, scenic open spaces with Blue Ridge views and quaint little towns like Middleburg, Waterford, Lincoln, and Round Hill. Purcellville, the largest town west of Leesburg, has a lot of new houses built in subdivisions.

Likewise, Fauquier has new subdivisions planned and underway in and adjacent to the towns of Warrenton, Marshall and Bealeton, but has tried to limit development to what it calls service districts, confining commercial development and higher density housing to towns where existing infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer is already in place and is stricter about what can be done in rural farming areas. Other counties like Culpeper, Stafford and Spotsylvania, are also experiencing population growth and subdivision pressure, and each county has a different comprehensive plan for dealing with growth.

Prior to the early to mid-1980s, most rural counties had little or no zoning restrictions and as long as the land had a perc site (sufficient drainage for a septic field) and road frontage or a right of way, you could sell off lots from your farm. By the 1980s, more people were moving out as properties and taxes were much less expensive, and counties had to do something to prevent uncontrolled, haphazard and/or unsightly growth by creating comprehensive plans, followed by implementing zoning legislation. It’s a delicate balancing act to satisfy landowners who just had land devalued by not being able to sell off lots, while allowing growth, including both farms and businesses, to keep up with a more populated world in a manner that does not overwhelm existing infrastructure.

Ramundo recommended that those that opposed subdivisions in rural areas start before they’re proposed by learning what’s allowed and what’s not. “Get involved and make your voice heard much earlier in the process.” It starts with elected officials, he noted: developers are well organized, have a very effective lobby and are notoriously large contributors to campaigns of elected officials at all levels: county boards, mayors as well as statewide helping create favorable environments for development. “Know the comprehensive plan for your county,” he stressed, “along with the implementing zoning legislation that goes with it.”

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