Get our free newsletter
On the evening of June 4, a stout, impish man wearing an orange polo and a Viking helmet steps up to the mic at the Loudoun County government center in Leesburg, Va. “Hi, my name is Bob Costantino,” he tells a packed house. “I brought this prop today, which is a Viking helmet. The Vikings, during their time, were known for pillage, they were known for plunder, and they were known for thievery. And it’s my contention that the Metro Silver Line Phase Two in the context of Loudoun County is virtual highway robbery.”
Pillage and plunder weren’t the only medieval torments a proposed extension of Metro’s Silver Line would unleash on the county. “You’ve got a crazy circumstance in which the general public is going to get raped or not get raped,” anti-rail County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio tells me. “Those are their options tonight.” When the meeting finally ended, public transit might as well have been Leif Ericson’s longboat, preparing to savage Northern Virginia’s remaining countryside.
By July 4, Loudoun County’s nine-member board of supervisors must decide whether to opt out of their $270 million contribution to the $6 billion project to run the line to Dulles International Airport and beyond (plus an estimated $10 million a year in annual maintenance starting in 2016). The Silver Line, now under construction, will run from East Falls Church, on the Orange Line, to wherever Loudoun’s government decides to let it end. If the county backs out, Metro will abandon the two Loudoun stations beyond Dulles, and likely delay the construction of the airport stop (paid for by the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority) for up to two years. Supporters say that could kill the Dulles stop altogether, due to the logistical problems that would come with having a Metro terminus at an airport. The first portion of the line is due to open in 2013, $150 million over its original $2.8 billion budget. The second phase would open in 2018.
For Northern Virginia suburbanites facing “America’s worst commute” and D.C. folk who would ride a Chinatown bus to Europe to avoid flying from Dulles, the Silver Line extension is a no-brainer. But Loudoun County is split down the middle. Its fast-developing, suburban east wants the commercial growth and quick commute that come with Metro. The fiscally conservative rural west, which wouldn’t get much use out of a couple of Dulles-area Metro stops, fears the project will raise its taxes for decades to come. A likely 5–4 vote—it’s unclear which way—suggests that the all-Republican Board of Supervisors is no less conflicted.
Ordinarily, the internal agonies of an exurban county might not matter much to the rest of the D.C. area—except in this case, the agonies are over how much Loudoun wants to belong to the region. The Metro debate isn’t just a battle over public transit: It’s over whether Loudoun will cling to a hazy yeoman ideal, or jump headlong into a government contracting-driven boom that’s already made the county the richest in the nation (along with four other nearby suburbs that are in the top 10).
Unfortunately for those of us who wouldn’t mind taking the subway to the airport or seeing the D.C. area’s transportation infrastructure grow along with its population, that question—to join with the region, or not—is making Loudoun County freak out.
Loudoun (pronunciation: LOUD-un) has always been divided east-west—or, “lower-upper”—says mapmaker and unofficial county historian Eugene Scheel. Until the second half of the 20th century, virtually no one lived in the fallow, useless lower part of the county, where Dulles sits. Upper Loudoun, meanwhile, was lush farmland, populated by “patrician landowners” and “dirt farmers with small tracts.” When Dulles was first proposed in the late 1950s, the county supervisors, all but one of whom were Upper Loudoun farmers, voted 5–1 against. “The upper part of the county has always been pretty insular,” Scheel told me. “Anything coming from Washington or the U.S. government was looked at with strong distrust.”
The geographical divide became more palpable in the early 1980s, when Washington started spreading its tentacles into eastern Loudoun. Buoyed by the defense industry, the federal government had ballooned, and its army of contractors needed somewhere to live. Loudoun proved ideal: Taxes were lower there than in neighboring Fairfax and Arlington, and the climate was better. Finally, as Scheel put it, “people came out because they thought that D.C. and some of its suburbs were being taken over by African-Americans.” (Lily-white Loudoun only integrated its public school system in 1969.)
Fueled by government growth, then by high-tech jobs, Loudoun’s population multiplied at a blistering pace, from 58,000 in 1980 to 317,000 in 2010. (Among the new neighbors: Rick Santorum and Madeleine Albright.) From sprawling shopping strips and prefab suburban communities in the east, to lonely McXanadus in the west, much of the county’s rural character has now been paved over. In the last half-century, 400 dairy farms have dwindled to one, and fermented grapes have become the region’s preferred crop.
One reason for all that? The development-happy county government. In 2004, according to Washington Post coverage, Republican Supervisor Bruce Tulloch convinced the county to buy $13.5 million in land from an Islamic high school; his political mentor, a former county supervisor, earned a commission. A year later, the Post reported, board chairman and developer Randy Minchew (now a Republican state delegate) wanted a Ritz-Carlton in the county, so he told his colleagues on the board to grant a zoning exemption with “as little discussion as possible.” By 2007, the FBI was investigating the board for public corruption, and slow-growth Democrats took over.
Last November, the GOP came back. Thanks to Tea Party anger and more than $200,000 in donations from the real estate industry, Republicans swept all nine seats on the board. Since taking office, they have killed a volunteer program to clean up illegal road signs typically planted by realtors; refused to sign the previous board’s ethics pledge, which would have forced them to refuse campaign contributions from anyone with a development proposal before the board; and created a “government reform commission” comprised of campaign donors and political allies.
Despite Loudoun’s periodic real-estate frenzies, the west remains mostly untouched. Hundreds of area farmers gave up their land when developers showed up at their doorsteps with can’t-refuse offers. But for now, most land west of Leesburg is still zoned to mandate low-density development.
Left-leaning Independent Jim Burton, a “slow-growth” county supervisor who lost his seat in November after four terms, thinks the new board will try to change that. “We saw over the past 16 years a rural, peaceful, quiet county suddenly become a suburbanized county—at least in the eastern half,” Burton tells me. “My worry is they will probably open [the west] to suburban-type densities.”
Those same tensions define the debate over Metro, where the split is less ideological than it is geographic. Indeed, because so many allies of the Board of Supervisors oppose Metro, an ordinarily easy decision to promote development has become politically treacherous. Metro opponents range from staunchly progressive to severely conservative, as Mitt Romney might put it. The same goes for the other side, with smart-growth progressives and Chamber of Commerce Republicans joining forces. Virginia’s most powerful Republican politicians are also divided: Governor Bob McDonnell is in favor; Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is against.
The arguments for rail are fairly straightforward: Young people and commuters want easier access to the city; businesses want to attract customers. “The essence is that the economy with Metrorail…will be quite different than the economy without it,” forecasts ubiquitous George Mason University economist Stephen Fuller. “The difference adds up to be $272.6 billion over 30 years.” The Loudoun Chamber of Commerce is pushing hard for the line.
On the other side, some Loudouners, including Sterling Supervisor Delgaudio, harbor a hatred of public transit that defies geographical allegiance. But for the most part, arguments against the Silver Line are paeans to the county’s rural character, cloaked in the language of fiscal responsibility.
Hamilton home builder Dave LaRock, who organizes the county’s opt-out group and shuttles his giant Tax Pig from protest to protest on a flat-bed truck, estimates that Metro will increase the average household tax burden by $300 to $500 per year. But he’s not in this fight because of the money. “I probably do agree with libertarians for 85 percent of this, but I’m really more driven by my moral compass,” says LaRock, 55. “Lots more business activity does not improve the standard of living for anybody. Growth doesn’t equal progress.”
Here, LaRock agrees with his former supervisor Jim Burton, whom he never would have dreamed of voting for. “Do we have to continue to expand and expand at rapid rates?” Burton asks plaintively. “What’s wrong with a stable economy, a stable population in the county? What’s wrong with that?”
One could argue that Purcellville, Va.’s been heading in the wrong direction ever since dairy farmer Harvey Ball got sick of making his deliveries on a dirt road. In the 1930s, his granddaughter Mary tells me, a fed-up Harvey gathered his friends together, collected donations, and paved Loudoun’s very first road with his own two hands. “Everybody wanted to be able to get their milk into town,” she explains.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, and Mary Ball and I are surveying overpriced Swiss chard at a farmers market in Hillsboro, a tiny hamlet outside Purcellville. (At 8,000 people, Purcellville is what passes for the big city in the county’s west.) A bluegrass band yelps cheerfully behind us. Ball, a 57-year old former country music DJ, slaps bugs as we talk. “Organic producers, that’s a big thing that’s taken shape in Loudoun,” Mary says. “Little boutique farms have cropped up. But nothing like they used to be.”
I’ve driven from D.C. to tap Mary’s institutional memory: The Balls moved to Loudoun around 1730, “just after the Treaty of Albany.” Now accustomed to Loudoun’s rapid growth, Mary sighs, she’s “sort of exhausted about feeling sentimental about how the county’s changed.” Still, she’s happy to kvetch a little with the market’s vendors.
“On average what you want to see is controlled growth,” says an organic coffee vendor, who, because of his weekday job as a government contractor, refused to be quoted by name. “You want modern conveniences and everything…I like Harris Teeter. But you move to a certain area, and you move there for a reason.”
But with that, he’s alluded to his own complicity in the problem—he’s a “come-here,” as Eugene Scheel would say. Without people like him, there’d be no out-of-control growth in the first place. “He’s a perfect example” of the population boom, Mary says, turning to me. “I don’t mean that as a slam. I just mean that’s because the government’s gotten big.”
And he’s pro-Harris Teeter.
The Purcellville Harris Teeter held its grand opening late last month, making it the third grocery store on downtown’s Main Street. To build the store, Mary wails, the town “tore down the Cole Farm, this beautiful old farm, they ripped it all apart!” A developer bought the colonial farm in 2005, then the town rezoned it as commercial land, under the expectation that it would force Harris Teeter to preserve and incorporate the farm’s barn into its design. Instead, one morning, the store’s developer began bulldozing the whole thing. Much of the barn was destroyed before a group of angry citizens got the town to intervene. (Town officials claim it was an accident.)
The Cole Farm affair is the sort of thing that causes Mary Ball, Jim Burton, and others to call the town government the “Purcellville Mafia.” “The farm is not in keeping with Mayor [Bob] Lazaro’s movie-set vision of what he wants Purcellville to be,” Mary says. “Tear the old stuff down and then put back stuff that looks old.” The Harris Teeter was modeled to look like a farm, and Lazaro is paving the way for a downtown boutique hotel, where the owners of the 98-year-old Nichols Hardware store fear heavy construction will drive away customers.
But another battle now consumes Purcellville. Lazaro is in the process of building a second major thoroughfare meant to reduce traffic congestion on Main Street, which would grant easy access to Harris Teeter and the evangelical Patrick Henry College—“God’s Harvard”—adjacent to it. To build the road, Lazaro has seized land from another historic farm, this one owned by two of his fiercest opponents, Sam and Uta Brown.
Sam Brown’s family has owned the 95-acre Crooked Run Orchard for 250 years. It announces itself with a tree-obscured shack opposite East Main Street from the Harris Teeter and a little wooden sign. There’s nothing in the shack except a jar full of money (run on the honor system), a guest log, and a glass refrigerator full of asparagus. “Hairy Titters across the street will never give this kind of satisfaction,” one log entry reads.
In the 1970s, the Browns owned 5,000 chickens and sold eggs off their back porch. As large-scale farming became less profitable, they converted Crooked Run into a pick-your-own organic orchard. Now, a year after the town seized seven acres of the farm to build its Southern Collector Road, they’re worried about staying in business.
The lost property was seized in a “quick-take” that prevented the Browns from challenging the move or negotiating a price for the land. As a result, Sam, 64, can’t directly access the back 45 acres of the farm. “They completely blocked us off,” says Uta, 67, shaking a bunch of asparagus. Now, she says, Sam will have to drive through town with his tractor to get there, which could ruin his tires. “When this road goes through,” Uta says, “they’re going to develop it like they’re going to develop every road in Loudoun County”
Eminent domain seizures aren’t illegal as long as they’re done in the public interest. Lazaro claims Main Street is too clogged, and that the town needs another major drag. The Browns, who recently filed an injunction to claim more than the $432,000 they’re being paid, think this is just another sweetheart deal for developers. For that matter, that’s largely how much of the west sees the Metro project: an expensive, taxpayer-funded way for real estate interests to cash in on the county.
The Sunday before Memorial Day, a colleague invites to me to a barbecue at her parents’ house in tony Potomac Falls, in the eastern part of the county. More specifically, they live in Countryside, a 1970s-era planned development replete with artificial ponds and sculpted nature paths.
While chowing down on hot dogs and macaroni salad, I join a group of Countryside dwellers in their 50s and 60s trading war stories about their commutes on the back porch. “I was supposed to have a meeting at HUD at 11:30 on Thursday,” says 60-year-old high-tech contractor John Geiger, a Countryside resident since 1985. “We left the office at 10 after 10. So that’s an hour and 20 minutes. Should have been plenty of time. There had been a bad accident on the toll road eastbound, near Wolf Trap…” Geiger eventually turned around and headed home.
The partygoers moved to Loudoun County for the same reason anybody moves to the suburbs: good schools, safe neighborhoods, open space. And though growth has brought Obama supporters to the county (Loudoun went blue in 2008 for the first time since 1964), suburbia’s more-or-less unified support for the Silver Line extension derives not from any love of smart growth or massive public infrastructure projects, but from convenience’s sake. What the Countryside crowd didn’t bargain for when they moved there was a group of unruly rural neighbors who don’t want inclusion in the greater D.C. area—and who think the Countrysiders are just as bad as the grimy city folk they themselves came out here to escape.
“Those suckers are getting ready to kibosh the whole thing!” says a businessman in a red polo. Spiked punch is flowing. “At some point, the federal government is going to say, ‘Look, you assholes out in Loudoun, we are a mile and a half from connecting Washington, D.C., to the airport.’”
Though they’re incredulous about the boneheadedness of the “hinterlands,” as one partygoer puts it, they seem unwilling to consider the reason the west feels so threatened. “I mean, there is this dichotomy that the bulk of the development has been in the east and most of the west has been rural,” Geiger says. “But I’d like to see the west reasonably preserved, too! I like driving my car out there to the wineries.” Like the coffee vendor at the farmers market, the Madras-and-loafers set doesn’t quite grasp its own complicity in the divide.
In large part, that’s because they genuinely enjoy the perks that come with growth. “I love this area,” says 28-year-old Cameron Hidalgo, who came to the barbecue with his government-employee stepfather. “I’m enjoying the development. We’ve got some of the fastest Internet speeds in the country out there.”
If anything, you could argue Eastern Loudoun needs more commercial growth to expand its tax base; as it stands, the county can’t quite afford the population boom it’s undergoing. As party host and public school teacher Cindy Black attests, classrooms are overcrowded, teacher salaries have been frozen for four years, and the new county board is cutting education spending.
Still, the Countryside folks—almost all of whom work or contract for the federal government—don’t seem to follow local politics too closely. Without bitter zoning debates to fret over, their suburban ennui takes on the shape of a seedy John Updike scenario. Just as I’m shaking hands and getting ready to leave the barbecue, Hannah Williamson, a 20-year-old James Madison University student, mentions a regular Loudoun County “swingers party.” A couple of the older women nod knowingly, swilling their drinks. Rumor has it, several frisky neighborhood couples plant white limestone rocks outside their homes, a cue for others to drop their spare keys in the mail slots. Then, one Saturday a month, Loudoun’s swingers meet up at Clyde’s restaurant in Ashburn, where they exchange keys and spouses.
Outside the hearing where the Viking warnings would be unleashed, it feels like a high-school pep rally. On one side of the plaza are several dozen young Metrorail advocates in green “Loudoun Rail Now!” T-shirts, surrounded by suited businessfolk from the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce. They’ve brought pizza and yoyos for the crowd. “What do we want? Metro! When do we want it? Now!”
Thirty yards away stand their opponents: Fifteen rag-tag “Loudoun Opt-Out” advocates, blaring The Black Eyed Peas and “Eye of the Tiger.” At the opt-out table I run into John Grigsby, whom I had met the previous weekend in Hillsboro after noticing the “Don’t Tax Me For Metro” sign on his front lawn. Grigsby, a 49-year-old Ron Paul supporter who works in I.T. and home-schools his children, is yelling at prorail Supervisor Shawn Williams.
“The math doesn’t work, Shawn! The math doesn’t work. Let the private sector do it. Opt out, Shawn.” Grigsby turns to me, scoping out the opposition. “I think a lot of them are either union employees or other kind of paid help,” he says, conspiratorially. “It looks like your typical kind of Astroturf thing. These people do not look like anyone I’ve ever seen at a public meeting.”
Up against carpetbaggers or not, Grigsby’s faction needs all the help it can get. After the first dozen speakers oppose Metro, the momentum shifts, and the yeas begin to overwhelm the nays. “We can’t keep pretending that there’s not a major metropolitan area 25 miles down the road,” says Charles Frownfelter, who’s lived in Loudoun 23 years. “That we live in this rural wonderful place.”
To stem the tide, Dave LaRock, his wife Joanne, and their four kids effectively skirt the two-minute-per-speaker time limit, tag-teaming through speeches full of dense anti-Metro data from a Cato Institute study arguing against the Silver Line extension for fiscal reasons. But the LaRocks, kids and all, remain in the minority. By the end of the four-hour session, near 11 p.m., an unofficial tally has Metro proponents leading, 70–30.
Later, I catch up with a discouraged Grigsby. “Everyone’s for something if it’s free. I mean, if you say, ‘Jaguars for everyone,’ yeah, man, I’m for one of those,” he says. “Honestly, the vast majority of [people] don’t know about this issue…they don’t know anything about the financing.”
Grigsby’s on an email chain with LaRock and a few libertarian rail wonks. He defers to them on specifics about the project’s projected tax burden, but isn’t shy when talking about the emotional stakes. “We don’t like seeing little people screwed by big people,” he says. “I’m sorry I’m not more poetic here. That’s the way I see it, and that’s what’s going on here.”
Talking to opponents of the project, it seems as if they’re up against a vast conspiracy, tying in construction firms, real estate developers, academics, even the local press.
And actually, that’s basically true, except it’s all pretty much in the open. The county’s business interests are united behind the Metro extension. Local builder Comstock has already put up a mixed-use development called Loudoun Station that surrounds one of the proposed Silver Line stop sites. GMU’s Fuller, whom Grigsby calls “the academic prostitute for rent-seeking developers in Northern Virginia,” wrote a study on the proposal; around the same time, the George Mason University Foundation got a $15,000 grant from the Claude Moore Foundation, which is currently selling off a large parcel of land near the proposed Metro stations to developers.
(The opt-out folks do have at least one heavy hitter on their team: The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity has inundated Loudoun with anti-rail robocalls for the better part of the last month. Conservative opposition has already killed a provision that would have encouraged union labor on the line’s construction.)
Among the pro-Metro big shots, none holds more sway than Bill Dean, CEO of Loudoun-based construction giant M.C. Dean. Dean’s already got a $50 million contract sitting on the first section of the Silver Line, which extends from East Falls Church to Reston, and he hopes for an even bigger deal on the second phase.
During last fall’s elections, Dean and his company were the single largest donors to Loudoun County candidates. Dean is also a part-time owner and board member of the county’s main newspaper, the Loudoun Times-Mirror, which is pro-Metro. Understandable concerns about conflicts of interest were aggravated a couple weeks ago when Dean wrote a pro-Metro, anti-PLA op-ed that identified neither his stake in the paper nor his interests in the project. (“Just Change The Name To The Bill Dean Times Already!” read an entry from the right-leaning local blog Too Conservative.)
On the phone a week after the hearing, I ask him about the episode. “People know I’m on the board of that paper,” he says, suggesting it was too obvious to run a disclaimer. “I’m the largest private employer in the county—its not like we’re unknown.”
Besides, as an ambassador for the county, Dean sees no real conflict of interest: The success of the paper, the county, and his business are all wrapped up into one.
“Everybody cries about corporate interests,” Dean says. “The reality of it is, there’s 100 different environmental groups, you’ve got labor groups…For some reason a corporation has somehow become a pejorative. At the end of the day, it’s important that corporations be able to speak politically.”
Indeed, Dean has used the paper to speak up for Metro, so Loudoun can be more than “a bedroom community to Fairfax.” And if the vote goes Metro’s way, it’ll probably be due to support from Dean, and other power players.
Still, it doesn’t sound like Dean wants Loudoun to change too radically. “It’s an interesting place,” he tells me. “You should go out one night and have a drink at Clyde’s. It’s very different from D.C.”
So I’ve heard.