A complicated new deal worked out between the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and a controversial developer could end up restoring the Aldie Tavern and protecting the village of St. Louis from development, but some rural Loudoun activists are worried.
The new deal entwines two spots where neighbors have fought for preservation and against new construction. In June 2019, after more than a year of effort by residents in and around the village of Aldie, the county abandoned its plans to build a new fire station next to the abandoned Aldie Tavern, opting to buy land near Gilbert’s Corner instead. Also, rather than their earlier plans to remove the Aldie Tavern from the Aldie Historic District to skirt a decision by the Historic District Review Committee that made the fire station project more difficult, supervisors voted to expand the historic district to include more county-owned land.
And in October of this year, county supervisors decided to buy 16.4 acres near St. Louis for $1.5 million, averting developer Mojax’s plans to build a 30-home subdivision there. That deal did not end the battles around St. Louis—the land is still under review by the state and local agencies for violating environmental regulations by impacting wetlands, with a consent order from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality under consideration that could have the developer pay a $32,275 civil penalty, restore wetlands and purchase 0.6 acres of wetlands credits.
And now that deal has fallen through.
Longtime Loudoun developer Hobie Mitchel, who is not formally part of Mojax but helping out with the project, said that deal fell through because the company was going to be the beneficiary of conservation easement tax credits on the land—but that money is expected to dry up in the state budget in 2021.
Instead, after midnight at their Dec. 1 meeting, supervisors held a surprise vote to buy the St. Louis land for the same $1.5 million, but also to give the developer the land around the Aldie Tavern and set aside another $600,000 to help fund the restoration of the tavern and install an entrance road on the property to land behind the tavern that is already under conservation easement. That will first involve a public hearing.
District Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said he was open to that idea since it involves the public hearing, and the deal will only move forward depending on what happens at that hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.
“Their plans that they have told the county, and part of what we have agreed to, is that we’re putting money into an escrow for the specific purpose of them renovating the [Aldie Tavern] building, so knocking it over would not be in the plan,” Buffington said. “The reason the county’s interested is because they have said that they’re interested in renovating it.”
“I was so committed to not allowing housing in St. Louis,” said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “… I was so committed to doing that, that when that deal seemed to not be kind of going well, I talked to the county attorney, and it was the county attorney and Mojax themselves that started trying to put together something that would be beneficial to everyone, that would disallow any new housing in the Rural Policy Area.”
Supervisors have no immediate plan for the land in St. Louis if they buy it, although Randall said her next project will be to devise a way to use the wells that have already been drilled on that land to get water to people in the village who do not have it or are having problems with their own wells.
As for the Aldie Tavern, plans are still preliminary, but aim to change the property from deserted to a destination.
“Our goal is to recreate the tavern and make a nice high-end restaurant there at the tavern, and then also restore the other two buildings that are there,” Mitchel said. He likened plans at the tavern to something like the Inn at Little Washington, and use of other buildings on the property to the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria.
“We’ll reach out the community—there’s a lot of history there—make sure we’re doing it correctly,” said Mitchel, himself an Aldie resident.
Meanwhile, plans also include access to 60 acres behind the property, where Mitchell’s partner at Mojax, developer Jack Andrews, has long planned a park.
But some rural preservation advocates are concerned by the new deal, and are organizing to oppose it. Speaking on background, one said they distrust the developer with the Aldie Tavern, and that the county is overpaying for the St. Louis land.
The public hearing is expected in January.
Meanwhile, the battle over the details of the consent order in St. Louis is still being fought, with the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition writing to the Department of Environmental Quality to argue it should be much tougher.
“While the amount may be in line with other fines based on similar levels of destruction, in this case it’s not just the destruction, but the lack of honesty and moral conduct that is also at the heart of the problem,” the letter reads. “DEQ must not gloss over deliberate flouting of the regulations or they cease to be effective or deterrents to destruction.” The letter alleges that the developer’s destruction of the wetlands was “a deliberate calculation that any penalties or actions by the DEQ would be a minimal and manageable cost of doing business.”
A public input period on the consent order closed last week. DEQ Regional Enforcement Specialist Jim Datko said during an Oct. 26 State Water Control Board public meeting that the finalization of the consent order would depend on the amount of community feedback DEQ receives. He said, “there’s no guaranteed date of execution.”
This article was updated Dec. 9 at 5:24 p.m. to correct Hobie Mitchell’s association with Mojax.