The Loudoun County government is reaching into its own pocketbook to snatch up and conserve land in the village of St. Louis, where 30 single-family homes were on track to be built.
The Board of Supervisors last Tuesday voted 7-0-2, with Supervisors Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Matthew Letourneau (R-Dulles) absent, to purchase 16.4 acres in the village for $1.5 million to place in conservation easement and set up a park for passive recreation. The land—located along Snake Hill Road adjacent to the Mt. Zion Baptist Church—previously was facing by-right development by the Mojax development company, which was beginning to drill wells for a proposed 30-home subdivision called Middleburg Preserve.
The county is poised to pay more than three times the assessed value for the land, which is spread out among three parcels. According to the county’s parcel database, those parcels are valued at a combined $474,400.
Although the purchase has yet to be set in writing, County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said it is moving forward. Randall said Mojax could have easily declined to sell the property because the company was developing it by-right, meaning the Board of Supervisors could have no opportunity to vote to approve or deny the project.
“They didn’t have to even consider this,” Randall said. “They could have said ‘absolutely not.’”
Randall said talks with Mojax representatives began after an October 2019 community meeting at Banneker Elementary School.
That meeting followed a few other community meetings during which residents objected to the subdivision. Many cited concern that the subdivision would diminish the historically Black village’s water supply and that it would endanger an onsite slave graveyard.
Mojax had drilled 16 of 27 planned wells on the property. A Mojax representative in May said most of those wells are less than 300 feet deep and produce anywhere from 8 to 50 gallons of water every minute.
Job Woodill, the president of the Friends of St. Louis civic organization who lives across Snake Hill Road from the Mojax property, was one of the most vocal residents to cite concern about Mojax’s well-drilling. He said most of the village’s 90 properties get their water through 50- to 100-foot-deep wells and he feared they could have dried up if Mojax’s wells were put to use.
But once the county’s purchase goes through, the county plans to execute easements and engineering to allow the Mt. Zion Baptist Church and other area properties to gain access to those 16 wells, Randall said.
“That is fantastic,” she said, emphasizing that it was a major goal of hers to provide surrounding properties with access to those wells.
As for the graves of enslaved people on the property, Randall said those would be protected forever by the conservation easement the county intends to set up. She noted that residents and visitors for years to come will have a chance to enjoy the land via passive recreation, such as picnicking and hiking.
“It really is just a win for everybody,” she said.
Hobie Mitchel, an area developer who has been helping Mojax owner Jack Andrews on the St. Louis project since its beginning in early 2019, said Andrews has historically placed more property into conservation easement than anyone else in Loudoun, other than JK Moving Founder and CEO Chuck Kuhn. Mitchel said Andrews has placed somewhere around 2,000 acres of Loudoun land into conservation easement in the past two decades.
“It’s nothing new to him,” Mitchel said.
Woodill said the community is “happy in a reserved sort of way” as it waits for the purchase to be set in writing. He said the purchase follows two-and-a-half years of work by, and outcry from, Friends of St. Louis and individual residents.
“If this will be the outcome, then we’ll be quite happy,” he said. “We’re optimistic that the county and Phyllis [Randall] will move forward with this.”
When asked whether it was common for the county government to get involved in situations like the one in St. Louis by purchasing land to protect it from by-right development, Randall said it’s not a typical action for the county to take.
“This is the exception, not the rule,” she said. “This is not something that I want to do often.”
Randall said that for the county to do elsewhere what it’s doing in St. Louis, there must be “really specific circumstances” present. In the case of St. Louis, those specific circumstances, Randall said, are the county’s obligation to care for a community it has neglected over the decades as the rest of the county has developed and become part of Loudoun’s “well-to-do” culture.
She emphasized that there will be times when other communities want the county to step in to purchase land and stop development like it has in St. Louis, but that it won’t always happen that way.
“We have to take each individual application situation and look at them individually,” she said. “There will never be a blanket response.”