As many of Leesburg’s former agricultural properties have been turned into subdivisions, Leesburg’s Cook family hopes to do the opposite with Rock Spring Farm
Located off Loudoun Street, with frontage on Dry Mill Road, those passing through the downtown area encounter one of the last rural vestiges in the town, with the Cook family’s cattle grazing the fields on the farm property. Only 13 acres of the family’s formerly vast property remains as farmland, with hundreds of acres sold off over the years, including the land that now houses the Ashton Downs and Morven Park neighborhoods. John Cook, the family’s Lovettsville-based son, recalls being able to walk the farm’s back fields to go to Loudoun County High School, from which he graduated.
The property came by way of the family of Di Cook, the mother of John Cook and wife of Dr. Jack Cook. Di Cook was born and raised on the farm, which has been in her family for more than 120 years. It was purchased by her grandmother’s father as a wedding gift and, until Di Cook’s mother died in 1977, it operated as a working dairy farm. Following her death, the property was split between her four children, including Di Cook, and much of it began to be sold off for development. Dr. Jack and Di Cook bought the house on the property, fixed it up, and have lived there for years.
The farm property also boasts an historic tie to the Town of Leesburg, as it was the site of the town’s original water source. After the town was incorporated in 1813, the first resolution of the Town Council was to pass a bond to raise money to run a wooden pipe from Rock Spring Farm to Market Street, to use the property’s spring water. It remained the town’s public water source until the 1970s. More than 200 years later, the springs on the property have the potential to produce about 500,000 gallons of water each day, John Cook said.
“One day I was walking around the driveway with my mom looking at all the water going into the creek, the natural spring water, and I said, ‘If that was crude oil, would you let it run down the creek.’ She said, ‘Of course not, that would be silly.’ And I said, ‘What’s going down the creek is worth more than crude oil right now’,” he recalled.
In addition to its market value, Cook raves about the taste and quality of the spring water.
“There’s a reason why people from pre-Revolutionary times have been drinking out of one of those springs,” Cook said.
He said the family has been toying with the idea of bottling and selling the farm’s spring water for about 20 years, and he sees that endeavor as the key to preserving Rock Spring Farm for generations to come. He said that, just as the farming operations sustained the family through tough economic times like the Great Depression, a spring water business can again sustain itself going into the future. It’s a noteworthy choice, as John Cook acknowledges the family could reap a bounty if instead it opted to sell the remaining land off to developers.
“We’re really not trying to develop the property, we’re trying to un-develop it. We want it to go back to being a working farm,” he said.
To do that, the Cook family is going to need some help from the town. They are seeking a Zoning Ordinance text amendment to add a bottling plant definition to the R-E (Rural Estate) zoning district and to include specific use standards for bottling plants. They would then need to change the property’s zoning to an R-E designation that would allow agricultural uses. The property currently has R-4 and R-8 zoning designations allowing quarter-acre house lots and townhouses. A special exception may also be needed, Planning & Zoning Department Director Susan Berry-Hill said.
If they obtain those approvals, plans are to build a three-story bottling plant, which also would require an approval from the town’s Board of Architectural Review. There are two springs on the property—the Rock Spring, which is the pond in the front pasture, and the Town Spring, located near the driveway and covered by an historic structure. The latter spring is the one the family hopes to draw from initially, Cook said. Indications are that the Town Spring is currently flowing at 100,000 gallons per day, which is the same amount of flow from about 110 years ago, according to hydrology studies conducted by the town in 1910.
“That gives us a lot of hope that we’re not going to build something and it will dry up,” Cook said.
He said plans are to package the water in glass bottles and market it locally to restaurants and other consumers. If that plan works and the demand is high enough, Cook said the family would then look to pipeline the water to an offsite bottling plant and draw up to 500,000 gallons per day.
Further, the Cooks are hoping that the front pastureland—a popular community sledding hill—that has previously been placed into conservation easement, can be turned into a public park. John Cook has already met with Parks & Recreation Department Director Rich Williams for preliminary discussions on the park idea. Williams said a passive-type park is being contemplated, with natural walking trails and some seating areas. If developed into a formal town park, the town would take over maintenance of that part of the property, Williams said.
The Cooks are hopeful that the spring water operation can generate enough revenue to create a foundation to preserve the entire property perpetually.
“If we ever can sell 500,000 gallons per day, preserving Rock Spring Farm is not going to be a problem, and as the generations pass on there’s a structure in place to manage and take care of the property. That’s the long-term goal, probably not in my lifetime. It’ll be up to the next couple of generations to nurture,” Cook said.
He points to his parents’ decades of service to the town and the county, both having been honored as Loudoun Laurels for their countless contributions. He believes preserving the farm will be another milestone in that legacy.
“My mother’s side of the family has been in Loudoun County since colonial times. Loudoun County, and Leesburg in particular, has been a really great place for our family. There’s always been a feeling of giving back, if you look at my mom and dad and their history of service. There is a feeling that we should kind of keep a little bit of the flavor of the past here. The truth is Leesburg was an agricultural community and Loudoun County was a huge dairy area, and that’s basically gone. The farm itself is saying ‘Keep me together and I’m more valuable to you than if you break me up,’” Cook said.
The Town Council is planning an Aug. 10 work session on the Cook family’s spring water plans. The legislative approval process for both the Zoning Ordinance text amendment and rezoning and special exception could take more than a year, between staff review and discussion and public hearings at both the Planning Commission and Town Council.