Broken Promises, Hidden by a Six-Foot Berm

By Andrea Gaines
On August 9, 1825 at the age of 69, French military officer the Marquis de Lafayette was honored in Leesburg by former President James Monroe. The French-born Lafayette, inspired by stories of American independence, had sailed here to fight side-by-side with Americans at the young age of 20. Half a century later, he was back to visit old friends and a growing United States, watching former colonists work with their representatives to build a new country.

After the Leesburg ceremonies, the two men traveled down the Old Carolina Road (Rt. 15) to Oak Hill, Monroe’s home. Once there, they might have shared memories of the Revolutionary War. Maybe they talked about the fireplace mantles the Frenchman had given the president as thanks for intervening to save Lafayette’s wife during the French Revolution. Maybe they discussed architectural details that their mutual friend, Thomas Jefferson, had suggested for Monroe’s estate. Perhaps the conversation went to The Monroe Doctrine, written from Oak Hill in 1823.
Maybe, too, Lafayette and Monroe walked to the south portico to admire the view, with Monroe pointing out Leesburg to the north, the foothills to the east, and Washington, D.C. beyond. Middleburg to the west. Oatlands Plantation to the north. The small settlement called Gum Springs to the southeast …

Now, flash forward to 2016 and this very same spot – the view from the south portico. Incredibly, not much has changed in 191 years. But, due to an increasingly aggressive developer community – and the weak knees of a growing number of supervisors – it will. Without concerted citizen action, it certainly will.

Standing on the south portico of Oak Hill, just about everything you can see to the north and east falls into what is known as the Transition Policy Area – a sweeping, 27,000-acre section of Loudoun County designated as a “spatial transition” between the Suburban Policy Area to its east, and the Rural Policy Area to its west.

The innovative open space, road system, stream buffer, and density guidelines that apply here direct how and where development in the TPA can proceed, creating the spatial transition called for by the County Comprehensive Plan, and protecting some of the most precious land resources in the county.

But, on September 22 – after a long, drawn out fight – the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors used a nakedly transparent slight-of-hand to put its final stamp of approval on the Kirkpatrick West Commercial Center – a 135,000 sq. ft. Harris Teeter grocery store (105,000 sq. ft. was by-right) and a 10-pump gas station. Right here. Right here in the TPA.

While the board held the line on several special use permits that went along with the project, all that citizens got in exchange was the denial of something that should never have been proposed in the first place – three drive-thrus – along with lower lights, reductions in building heights and a few berms … visual barriers around the gas station.

The slight-of-hand used to take this action was two-fold. First, supervisors argued that although the commercial center didn’t fit with the open space and low-density standards of the TPA, it bordered on the nearby high-density zone and tended to fit in, at least in part. Second, argued the board, the Comp Plan is in the midst of review, at which time these standards might be reduced or even abandoned, so why not allow the higher density, now? Why not try to get as much as we can, even if it is just a six-foot berm?

Said Supervisor Ralph Buona (R–Ashburn): “ … there is a ‘zero percent chance’ the land in question will continue to be in the transition zone once the plan is complete.” But, in fact, although the Comp Plan is under review, this will be a lengthy, public process – as required by law – wherein all will be invited to discuss needed changes.

Said Geary Higgins (R–Catoctin): “On this location, the battle for protecting the transition area has already been lost.” But, in fact, the part of the TPA under discussion is still quite rural, still quite open, and with much less density – all per zoning rules that apply there.

And, for his part, Supervisor Tony Buffington (R–Blue Ridge), although seemingly sympathetic to the hundreds of residents who had opposed the project until the very end, failed to pull together enough votes to enforce TPA zoning on this land within his own district.

With these arguments in mind, think back to the two greats of American history standing on Oak Hill’s south portico in 1825. What hopes did they have for the area’s citizens and the people who might govern them?

The TPA contains 30 historic sites and 30 archeological sites, magnificent water systems, farms, old mansions, Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, small new and old communities.

Loudoun’s Comprehensive Plan was made final in 2003 – a massive effort that took citizens, elected officials, preservationists, and businesses years to complete.

Actions like this are indeed agreements. Agreements between the governing body and the governed. And here, government broke the agreement.
If, in the board’s opinion, the Suburban Policy Area was already encroaching, getting too close to the less dense TPA, why did the board approve such development in the first place?

If the board felt that the county should reconsider how the TPA was drawn, why did it not wait for the Comprehensive Plan Review, when citizens could have their full say, along with the developer community. Why did the board give away its authority to limit development here … in exchange for a six-foot berm?

It is ironic, even sad, that a place with such historic connections to representative government – with Monroe and Lafayette looking on – would be the scene of something that has such an undemocratic feel to it.