In the past 20 years Purcellville has changed from a very rural, quiet and polite town to a suburban outpost with a lot more noise, activity and impatience. Loudoun County, the wealthiest county in the country, harbors a vast government machine whose contractors and subcontractors, and those who benefit from these businesses with all sorts of spinoffs and support industries, is not suffering from the affects of the economic downturn felt in other jurisdictions.
But fast growth – the town grew by over 11 percent every year of the housing bubble – is often poorly planned growth. A growth of almost 70 percent in six years stretches the resources of any town or county, and can cause grievous harm to the needs of those who live in that community. Decisions on growth have to be tempered with a sense of scale and balance. Where will the water come from? How many children are going to be included in the new subdivision and what impact will that have on our present school system? How will the roads handle the new traffic? How will the quality of life be affected? What sort of mix between residential and commercial should be encouraged so that the tax base doesn’t throw a burden on the residents? How can small business, which keeps its dollars in the community, be encouraged over chain stores which drain not only money but a sense of place from the town? What makes this place special, even precious, and how can we preserve the very character that shaped it over its long history? How do we respect and cherish it and still incorporate the new and changing landscape?
During the past 15 years there were two documents that were supposed to safeguard this community from being overrun by poorly planned growth and the destruction of the sense of community living, a quality present in a small town surrounded by the overwhelming heritage of open lands and history, and the beauty and bounty that they express. One document is the Comprehensive Plan (CP) which is reviewed every five years. The second was the Purcellville Urban Growth Area Management Plan (PUGAMP), which was adopted by the town in 1995. The CP was more about zoning within the town. PUGAMP was more of a vision about the encroachment of the town on adjacent properties, and whether or not that encroachment was warranted by the capacity of the town to provide utilities. It was an attempt to fine tune the growth of any town with its ability to provide services and thus keep the population well supplied with those services. In other words, to respond to the needs of the citizens in an “orderly, harmonious” way. That was, in fact, the core purpose of the PUGAMP. It was written with the attempt to keep the quality of life at a peak level even as the population grew.
The vision of a community is expressed, and protected, by the leadership of that community. Those who have leadership skills and truly care about their communities, make plans. And, they stick with them. They protect the quality of life of the people who live within those communities, as opposed to letting what the town will look like be dictated by developers.
All the town has done for the last 10 years is make excuses. It takes a great deal of time and effort and money to make excuses. A constant stream of media is needed to distort reality. In Purcellville, the need to create a totally false vision of what the town is doing required them to hire a public relations expert to the tune of $90 an hour. And this person is not there to tell you what is actually going on. Perhaps we should call this person, not a public relations expert, but a purveyor of dreams. The town is all too willing to talk about the awards they are given and to send out a quarterly update that is nothing but a compilation of self congratulatory articles.
Now the town is saying that they are helpless about all this development. They are saying zoning is by-right. That they don’t choose what kinds of retail establishments come into town. The truth is the town has complete control of the type of vision they want for the town. The town promoted as much growth as possible in the past 20 years. If the town felt that the rate of growth was too rapid, they could have chosen to slow it down by overturning the annexations and not increasing the density of the zonings.
No one forced the Town Council to greatly accelerate the rate of new commercial development. The original commercial footprint on Cole Farm was half of this one and there were no Big Box Stores. Since the town had to use the Special Use Permit, a device which the Town Council has used on numerous occasions to change the zoning, they were certainly in control of the situation. But, a more glaring example that the Town Council has gone out of its way to grow the town unwisely is the annexation of the Catoctin Corner property and its zoning into another unnecessary and repetitive shopping center. The fact that the town did this over and above the objections of the Planning Commission demonstrates very clearly that the town is insincere when it depicts itself as helpless bystander in the zoning process.
Again, the vision of a community is expressed, and protected, by the leadership of that community.