Only two politicians have won more Loudoun votes over their careers and none has been involved in more day-to-day decisions guiding the county through its 25-year growth surge than County Chairman Scott K. York.
His fourth and final term ends today.
When the new Board of Supervisors convenes Jan. 6 it will be the first time since 1996 that York’s name won’t be displayed on the dais. He lost his bid for a fifth term as chairman—his sixth as a supervisor—in a three-way race in November. Phyllis Randall, the first Loudoun Democrat elected to countywide office since 1999, takes over that seat.
During a recent interview, the conversation reflected his role in leading a “smart growth” movement that focused on curbing the waves of residential subdivisions sprawling over the county.
In the early 1990s York was unlikely to be viewed in that role.
He got involved in local politics because of the controversy about introducing Family Life Education classes in Loudoun elementary schools.
Loudoun’s Republican Party at the time was a small group operating in firmly Democratic territory. York joined the phone banks and helped out at the polls in the 1991 election.
H. Roger Zurn won re-election as the Sterling District supervisor. York recalls that after the win, he approached Zurn to encourage him to appoint a different representative to the School Board. “And he turned around and said ‘how would you feel about serving on the planning commission?’”
What did York know about planning and zoning?
“Not much,” York said. “I was a home improvement contractor. Getting permits to make sure the addition fit into the building envelope of a lot, that was about it.”
He jumped into the subject matter, becoming the commission’s expert on the conflicts that arise from allowing residential development too close to airports and adopted the AOL handle “landuseman.”
Four years later, York was the Republican candidate for the Sterling District supervisor seat as Zurn campaigned to replace long-time County Treasurer George Titus, who was retiring.
It was a decidedly pro-growth, Republican-led Board of Supervisors that York joined in 1996 as the Sterling District representative. Through that term he increasingly found himself in the minority as concerns mounted about the fiscal impact involved with the line of developers’ rezoning applications.
“Mid-way through that term I felt that the county was not going in the right direction,” he said.
He recalled the night in 1998 when the tide changed, as the board approved a rezoning for a 2,600-home development along Rt. 50.
“That for me was really the turning point. It was so far away from anything and it didn’t make any sense at the time to start building all the infrastructure down in that area when we were still paying for everything up in Ashburn,” York said. “It was unusual for me, but I wrote down some notes and kinda gave an impassioned speech on why I voted no.”
Quickly York became the voice of a coalition of fiscally minded Republicans and Democrats opposed to the rapid development. A year later, he challenged incumbent Republican Dale Polen Myers for the GOP’s nomination for the chairman’s seat. He won the party primary and then won again in the General Election when Myers mounted an independent campaign.
That new board moved quickly to re-write the county’s General Plan that had been in place for a decade.
“Obviously, I think the big one was coming out of the chute in 2000 and doing the comprehensive plan and turning around and getting the zoning ordinance done,” York said. The effort significantly reduced the number of new homes planned in the county and included a downzoning of rural land—changes he called controversial and dramatic steps.
More important, he said was “seeing that plan pretty well stick for 16 years.”
The plan was driven by fiscal concerns, he said. “We certainly didn’t want to head where Fairfax was,” York said. “We didn’t want to see ourselves get up to a $1.70-plus tax rate.”
The plan was almost short-lived. York failed to win the GOP nomination leading up to the 2003 election, but mounted an independent campaign as Myers had done four years earlier. He won re-election by fewer than 400 votes.
The Republican majority moved quickly to set a new direction, adopting rules of order that stripped York of most of the chairman’s power to set agendas and make appointments. However, efforts to re-write the general plan or overturn the downzoning fell short—both in the boardroom and in the courts. “So we ended up getting through those four years pretty much unscathed,” York said.
Did he know the plan would work? “I didn’t have a crystal ball, but we certainly needed to do a better job with growth managing.”
York said that work done by the current board also has been rewarding, especially the gains that have been made in getting roads built.
He said transportation had been a big frustration during his previous 16 years on the board. “Transportation needed to be solved but there was no money to solve it,” he said.
He points to the board’s decision three years ago to dedicate the revenue from 2 cents on the real estate tax rate to finance road construction as a significant step that was followed by the General Assembly’s regional transportation funding program.
The result, he said, is that 31 road projects are under construction or in the queue.
There remain challenges ahead, he said, including two cross- jurisdiction issues. One is the future of the Bi-County Parkway between Loudoun and Prince William counties. Local and state authorities are debating the merits of that long-planned link, but York said the outcome will have a big impact on the south Loudoun transportation network.
He also sees pressure mounting to address congestion on Rt. 15 north of Leesburg. “Which means if you don’t get another bridge between 15 and the Beltway that relief has to come with the widening of 15. But again, right now there is no money for that.”
York sees the next board putting a focus on housing affordability as it undertakes an update to the county’s development policies. “We have workforce housing—there’s just a question of whether it is affordable,” he said.
The board also will see pressure to allow more residential construction close to Dulles Airport as developers pitch plans for high density mixed-use projects along the Silver Line.
“Hopefully, we’ll get back to having a growing airport. I just don’t feel that, given our ability to put housing elsewhere, we need to do it in such a way that potentially can jeopardize operations at the airport,” York said of the probability of increasing complaints about aircraft noise.
One area where he hopes the new board continues to invest is with the Department of Economic Development and specifically international business marketing.
“We’ve got a good crew. It’s taken a lot of years to get to where we are with our economic development staff,” York said. “We’ve got all cylinders pretty well firing now with [Director] Buddy Rizer there at the helm.”
He said that partnerships formed with jurisdictions in Germany, South Korea and China have paid dividends, with companies choosing Loudoun County to begin or expand their North American activities.
“The world is a big place when you have a business looking at a map. There are many reasons why they go to places, but it also helps to know the folks,” he said.
He said more firms that Loudoun representatives have met with on their overseas trips are “on their way here.”
At 58, York said he is not ready for retirement.
“Right now I have three developing opportunities so we’ll see what happens.”
And who are the two candidates who have won more votes from Loudoun residents than York over their political careers? Only retired U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R), who represented Loudoun County on Capitol Hill from 1981 to 2015, and Zurn can boast higher vote totals.