County supervisors on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the controversial application to operate an events center at Catesby Farm near Unison.
At Catesby Farm, the LaRose family sought a minor special exception to allow them to hold up to 20 events a year with a maximum of 200 attendees at each on the 241-acre property. Family representatives—and most supervisors—noted that they could open a county inn without any board approval and would be permitted to host an unlimited number of events with up to 100 people, and up to 20 events per year with more people.
Nonetheless, many western Loudouners vehemently opposed the application, even after hearing that explanation from supervisors and staff. Nearly three dozen addressed the board Tuesday night.
Mitch Diamond said opponents to the application had legitimate concerns that traffic, noise, and light that would “irrevocably damage the character of the community and undermine the success they have had over decades.”
“Sometimes a good idea, which at its heart has good intentions, is not such a good idea when pushed to the limits of the law,” Diamond said.
Jane Covington wondered if an application like Catesby couldn’t be denied—with its historic area, pristine property, and massive opposition—what application could.
“If a special exception is allowed with such opposition, where would it not be allowed?” Covington asked.
Dennis Gingold warned that approving the Catesby application could lead to legal action.
Brian Walker said it plainly: He didn’t believe the LaRoses would actually operate a bed and breakfast on the property. “It’s just too good to turn into a bed and breakfast,” Walker said. “I think they would never do it. There are so many things that go along with that. … These are very big business people. They wouldn’t want to be running some mom and pop bed and breakfast.”
But other speakers saw sense in the application.
“We had a similar go-round a number of years ago with Salamander [Resort & Spa],” said Middleburg Town Councilman Kevin Hazard. “I have to say that there was a lot of animosity, and in the long run, the inn was built. It has helped stabilize Middleburg.”
Georjan Overman pointed to the additional concessions negotiated in the minor special exception application.
“They listened to their neighbors and they responded to their neighbors, and I think you should now respond to their application and approve it,” she said.
And speaking at the home she inherited from her father—whose ashes remain on the property—Michelle LaRose last week said she and her brother were trying to be transparent to the community when they made the application, and that the furor turned into something she never expected.
“We primarily look at this as a family retreat,” LaRose said. “We don’t want to be open 365 days a year, but we will, is what we’re trying to convey. If we have to, that’s the route we’ll go. We wanted to open it up for exclusive events.”
Attorney Frank Stearns, who represented the LaRoses in the review process, said the application was supposed to be a minor one. “It hasn’t proven to be that,” Stearns said.
“They were being transparent. They were saying, ‘here’s what we want to do, so we can protect the community,’” Stearns said. “That seems to gather no appreciation.”
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge), whose district includes the property, said his goal “since day one has been to work with all parties to find the least intrusive use on the property,” and that if the LaRoses are bluffing about opening a country inn, he’s not willing to chance calling the bluff.
“I’m confident that a vote no here would be a vote for a more intensive use, and I’m not comfortable doing that,” Buffington said.
Supervisors voted 8-1 to approve the application. Only Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) voted against it.
“I view what’s going on here as part of philosophical debate,” Umstattd said. “Do we allow the neighbors, the community, to decide what is best for them, or do we tell them what is best for them? … They are fighting for the legacy that they have protected and want to protect into the future, and I personally don’t think I have a right to tell them they’re wrong.”
But other supervisors felt it was their responsibility to approve the application. Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said that generally, the people who show up in boardrooms are the people who are upset.
“I think that in a representative democracy, we get elected to represent our constituents and spend a lot of time on these sorts of issues on a regular basis, which most people don’t,” Letourneau said. “And one thing that always strikes me, particularly during the budget, is just how small a sample we always have in terms of public input if we just rely solely on the people that show up in the room.”
Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said that she has promised to protect western Loudoun, and that the best way to do that was to approve the family’s request.
“When they have said they will go by-right, I don’t have any reason not to believe them,” she said. “You all want me to roll the dice. I would rather have you upset with me for this vote than roll the dice, and they go with this use, and you have a much more intensive use.”
The paradox of the Catesby Farm debate—neighbors arguing for a more intensive use, applicants offering to restrict themselves to a less intensive one—highlights a big question as Loudoun goes through a complete review of its comprehensive plan. It was a controversy that prompted Bonnie Mattingly, who the night before had attended an Envision Loudoun meeting as part of the county’s effort to gather public input on the comprehensive plan, to wonder:
“I think we all in that room agreed that we love western Loudoun. The question now seems to be how to love it without loving it to death.”
Give an Inch, Save a Mile?
County planners, consultants, and leaders are struggling to suss out the best way to preserve western Loudoun as the east inevitably grows. Leaders at an Envision Loudoun meeting at Woodgrove High School on Monday night said that even though it was Envision Loudoun’s only meeting in the west, they had heard similar sentiments as at every other meeting.
“I think just by virtue of where we are, there were more ideas about the rural area, but the reality is that most of these tables were also talking about the larger issues of the county,” said Jamie Greene, one of the team of consultants hired by the county to help guide it through its comprehensive plan rewrite.
“I think we’re hitting on some of the same types of comments, a lot about preserving our dichotomy, our suburban and soon-to-be-urban east and our rural west,” said Community Planning Program Manager Chris Garcia.
“This was really about the western environment and the western culture, and I think more than anything what people here wanted to convey was for us to have an appreciation of what happens in the west,” Randall said at the Envision Loudoun meeting.
There has been little appetite on the Board of Supervisors for opening up the rural west to more development, but some have argued—during the Catesby Farm review and in other conversations—that allowing some business is essential to protecting the west at large. Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) has often given the example of houses going being build around his own home near Waterford.
“I have nothing against houses, I live in one, but I sure would prefer to have something other than the 78 houses that are going in next to me,” Higgins said. Property owners have to be allowed to open rural businesses, he argued.
“Those people that own that land, if they’re not given an opportunity to keep those properties profitable, and homes become their best use, then you’re going to get homes,” Higgins said.
“The agriculture-based economy is collaborative and supportive in ways that may not be obvious,” Visit Loudoun President and CEO Beth Erickson said ahead of the supervisors’ vote on Catesby. “This ecosystem depends on the supply of agriculture-based businesses and producers and the demand of everyone from residents and visitors to restaurants and accommodations. We need to continue and even build upon this successful ecosystem if we want agriculture-based businesses to survive.”
And Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Manager Brian Fauls, while declining to take a position on any particular application, said that businesses keep agricultural land in agricultural use.
“We are increasingly concerned that the board is being presented with an inaccurate picture of our rural economy, and a false choice between unregulated ‘rural’ businesses and untouched wilderness,” Fauls told the Board of Supervisors. Instead, he said, the choice is between rural businesses and 11,650 houses that he says are currently permitted by-right or in approved rezonings.
“If we do not support rural businesses that keep agricultural land in appropriate uses and provide a source of income to land and business owners, rather than prevent, we will hasten the day when our rural lands are converted into housing estates,” Fauls said.
“We know that this result is not the one that some had hoped for,” Michelle LaRose said in a prepared statement after the vote. “We have listened, and respected the neighbors’ perspectives—and will continue to do so. As we’ve said all along, we want to be good neighbors and residents – now, and in the future.”
But to many of the neighbors around Catesby Farm, it’s hard to see how opening an events center saves the west from ruination.
“As our representatives, I implore you to please deny this permit,” Eleanor Morrison said. “And let this ruling be the start of a new conversation on where these types of commercial ventures are appropriate and not appropriate.”