The Loudoun Board of Supervisors is working to change the rules for a relatively little-used zoning district, but its decision will have big impacts on acres of history and some people’s life savings.
As they were vetting a proposed public-private partnership last year to convert Old Arcola School into affordable housing, county leaders discovered there were no limits on residential density in the rural commercial zoning district. That district was created to preserve the sort of crossroads commercial centers that characterized Loudoun’s rural towns and villages before the county started its growth spurts.
Supervisors are considering just one change: capping residential density at no more than four units per acre. But that has ignited a debate among people who live near these rural commercial districts and the people who want to build there. Several sets of plans for tightly-packed townhomes in RC districts, particularly in Old Ashburn near Ashburn Road, Hay Road, and the W&OD Trail, have been working their way through permitting. Some have already been approved, but others, if the zoning changes are enacted, will be derailed.
And some applicants, like David Fogle and Harry Saville, say they’ve bet their life savings on the projects.
“If you change this—which I’m begging you to grandfather my application—I will not have time to make this up in my life,” Fogle said. He is part of Ashburn Road Partnership LLC, which owns two parcels with an application pending to build 46 units on 2.5 acres, at a density of about 18 units per acre. He said if his application is suddenly invalidated by the zoning change, there is no backup plan: “That property right there is all we have. When we’re done with that, we’re done. I won’t recover.”
And then there’s Harry Saville, whose property includes the historic Ashburn Colored School that made headlines after being vandalized last summer, and which the Loudoun School for the Gifted has been working for years to restore. Saville has an application in to build 16 townhomes elsewhere on the property.
Tim Saville said his father bought the property in 1970 as an investment, and over the years watched Loudoun grow and change around it. He said he tried to bring in several commercial enterprises, but the lot was too small and narrow. After consulting with the Department of Planning and Zoning staff, he said, he was advised that townhouses would fit.
“We have spent the last three years working towards this goal that you, the county, directed us to do,” Tim Saville said. “We invested his life savings doing this.”
But the area of Old Ashburn is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, after a battle to get it listed went to the state Attorney General’s Office for a decision in 2014. And some of the neighborhood’s landmarks are slated to go.
The Weller Tile and Mosaics building, three doors down from Hay Road on Ashburn Road, is one of the buildings slated for demolition as part of an RC-zoned townhouse project. The property’s owner, Tom Burson, had previously planned to preserve some of the buildings on the property and build an eight-unit apartment building behind the Weller Tile building.
Now, plans filed with the county show every building on the stretch of land between Hay Road and Haven Crest Way getting razed, to be replaced with 47 townhouse units. One of the roads in the townhouse complex will be called Mosaic Tile Terrace.
Burson could not be reached for comment.
Area residents say allowing developers to pack townhouses in will ruin what’s left of the historic neighborhood. There has been an upwelling of resistance against the proposed townhouses and of support for the zoning change.
“I would have no trouble sleeping at night if these permits were rethought, if there was a rethinking of why they were granted in the first place,” said Amit Sarma. “Because they really were done in exploitative, loophole-type fashion.”
“This issue that is in front of us is about money,” Brian Bencic said. “Nobody is building a medical center. Nobody is building an animal hospital. We’re talking about high-density units in a small area.”
Two site plans have already been approved in Old Ashburn, allowing construction of 26 townhouses—22 along Ashburn Road at the corner of Stubble Road, and four at the corner of Ashburn Road, Hay Road, and the W&OD Trail.
Supervisors are overwhelmingly in favor of the rules change to protect rural commercial districts. Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) was part of getting Old Ashburn declared a historic district on the state and national registries.
“To me the bottom line here is that the county recently found out that there’s no limit to how much residential you can build,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge), calling it a “common-sense” change. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the county that we have that.”
The board’s vote will be delayed for at least a month. An oversight by the county staff meant legally required notifications only started going on the day before the public hearing. The county will hold more public hearings at the planning commission on March 28 and at the Board of Supervisors again April 12.
This article was updated at 4:40 p.m. to correct the date of the next planning commission public hearing on this zoning amendment.