By Roger Vance
History is incalculable and “inevitables” often are not inevitable after all. Our past has been shaped by countless examples, large and small, of citizens going against the odds, banding together to challenge the powerful. Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose, but even when losing they are often planting the seeds of future victories.
In early May residents of the northern reaches of the Loudoun Valley and Between the
Hills were awakened to the prospect of an unprecedented change to the world outside their window. Like a fast-moving summer storm, it appeared there was little time or likelihood they could stop it from happening. And, many would say, when you are up against an industrial giant named American Telephone and Telegraph—with a reach and past woven into the nation’s fiber—why even bother?
By the time ATT’s proposed massive expansion of its facility atop the ridgeline of the Short Hill Mountain a few miles northwest of Hillsboro became widely known, its approval was nearly complete. When the Loudoun County Planning Commission ruled that a 160,000-square-foot, 35-feet tall structure was compatible with Loudoun’s existing Comprehensive Plan and is therefore a permitted and reasonable “expansion” of the switching facility that is now entirely underground, it looked to be a done deal. Even Loudoun’s Board of Supervisor’s hands are tied, their only recourse being a short window of time to flatly deny, or passively approve, the Planning Commission permit. Caught off guard, much like the residents they represent, the supervisors took a stand, tabling their vote on the matter at their May 19 meeting and pushing their final vote to June 23.
Despite of the long odds, what has transpired in the days since has been a groundswell of public sentiment and civic action, uniting an array of people with backgrounds and politics from across the spectrum. These citizens do not accept the proposition that the deck is too stacked against them, that resistance is futile. Hundreds of them packed a hot Lovettsville Game Protective Association hall on May 23 for what was only the second public information presentation on their project by ATT representatives. The spirited give and take that followed made it clear that residents simply are not buying what ATT is selling. Catoctin Supervisor Geary Higgins and Blue Ridge Supervisor Tony Buffington boldly pledged to the assembled crowd that night that their vote will be to deny the ATT permit. With the formation a week later of a grassroots group to oppose the project, the stage is being set for a test of our representative democracy.
Whether ATT gets its way or not, there is little doubt that those who have become engaged in the battle for the Short Hills will be at the table when the county Comprehensive Plan comes under review in the next year. Defining what constitutes compatible uses in rural and scenic Loudoun will be one of the many challenges in this exercise. Protecting our mountainsides, ridgelines, viewsheds and open spaces from further encroachment should be high on the agenda.
Previous Boards of Supervisors, driven and supported by broad constituencies that were united by a common desire to preserve and protect the rural heritage and landscapes of western Loudoun, did the right thing to corral rampant sprawl. We are all now reaping the rewards of a revitalized rural economy built on a foundation of sustainable agriculture, recreational, scenic and heritage tourism. If common sense, conservation and respect for the environment are not incentive enough to protect our landscapes, the negative impact on a thriving rural economy that nets millions for Loudoun should be.
Through its precedent, the ATT expansion as now proposed poses a direct threat on the viability of this convergence of conservation and economic sustainability. Just as the citizen activists from across Loudoun have joined together and stepped up, the current Board of Supervisors has an opportunity to set its standard for what will be contentious struggles to come. They will need support and encouragement from their constituents to do so.
Neither optimism nor pessimism makes history. Rather, it is hopefulness, perseverance and a willingness to go against the grain that drives change. When our beloved Short Hills were threatened, it ignited a community spirit that makes us remember why we want to live here. We should all be buoyed and inspired by the hope that is growing in the valley.
[Roger L. Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro and former editor of American History magazine.]