County supervisors on Tuesday reversed their earlier decision on a residential development along Goose Creek, turning a narrow approval for the project into a bigger vote to deny.
On March 2, supervisors approved a rezoning request to build 238 new homes on land along Goose Creek at the Sycolin Road bridge by a 5-4 vote. But a week later, Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) asked County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) to schedule a vote to reconsider that decision at their next business meeting March 16.
And this time, two supervisors flipped their votes and one abstained, resulting in a 6-2-1 vote to deny the application. Turner and Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) reversed their earlier votes to approve.
The project has seen public outcry both before and after its approval, with public input sessions packed with people opposing the application. The project would have allowed 238 homes on parcels by the river. Goose Creek Overlook, as the project is known, would bring 123 townhouses, 40 two-over-two stacked residential units, and a 75-unit apartment building to the area. The application was controversial both for its environmental impacts—planned near Goose Creek, a state scenic river, and for only coming under density limits because county planners counted a nearby, undeveloped county-owned parcel that is under a conservation easement—and for its impacts on crowded schools and straining road infrastructure.
Turner started by apologizing to the applicant and county staff who have worked on the application.
“I believed then the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. What caught me completely off guard and ultimately led me to this final decision here tonight was my unexpected emotional reaction to my vote,” Turner said. “Put simply, it just didn’t sit well, and I was surprised by the intensity of my misgivings. Some second thoughts are not uncommon with close votes, but my discomfort with my vote not only didn’t go away, it intensified over the course of the next few days.”
He said that stemmed from Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau’s (R-Dulles) comments during the earlier meeting arguing the project didn’t fit with the county’s planning for the area. Turner noted that the county’s 2019 General Plan calls for protecting the Goose Creek, a state scenic river, and other waterways.
“It really wasn’t a question of what else the applicant could do […] but really it was a fundamental issue with the place type itself, and that remains my analysis,” Letourneau said Tuesday.
“The applicant has proposed strong mitigation measures that arguably address possible damage to Goose Creek, but even if every mitigation feature of the applicant’s plan works perfectly and forever, the very best we as a community could hope for is that we would do no further harm to an already impaired stream,” Turner said. “And if something didn’t work as planned, the damage could be significant and permanent.”
He also pointed out that the Goose Creek defines the western boundary of the Ashburn electoral district, which ends at the centerline of the creek—”surely, its protection must sit as one of the Ashburn district supervisor’s very highest public service priorities.”
“Over the course of the past year, I think I lost sight of the forest for the trees, literally,” Turner said. “I’ve certainly done a disservice to the applicant, but refusing to admit my mistake would have done a far greater disservice to my constituents and the citizens of Loudoun County.”
Sycolin Road is also part of the district boundary, putting roughly half the proposal in the Ashburn District.
Buffington said he reversed his stance after public outcry and further discussion with people concerned about the creek. And he and Letourneau both said county planners overstepped the lines by bending the comprehensive plan’s guidance to accommodate a project with an affordable housing component, a Board of Supervisors strategic priority.
“In my opinion, those decisions from staff and what’s in those packets, should be based on the comp plan, not other board priorities—it should be based on place type,” Buffington said. “Let us decide on our own if we want to go against that.”
“Looking at the letter of the comprehensive plan, this application really didn’t meet the place type, but there was some extra consideration given because of affordability by staff,” Letourneau said. “I would just simply say, I think that is frankly not what the role of staff is, it’s to evaluate this solely on land use.”
“I’ll just say this as well to any applicant coming before us moving forward: put your best foot forward from the beginning,” said Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling). “This application possibly could win a different way if they had done that.”
Saines indicated he had had some last-minute comments from the applicant. The application changed right up until the board’s first vote March 2.
Supervisors Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) and Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run) stuck by their earlier decision.
“When I hear, ‘I’m in support of affordable housing but not here,’ all I can think is that it’s NIMBYism wrapped in environmentalism,” Briskman said.
“This is frustrating, because this is why I came here,” Glass said. “I came here to make sure that we have affordable housing for those who want to live here, who want to live by their jobs, who want to send their children to good schools. We have to think about that.”
And Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) switched his vote to approve to an abstention, criticizing the process. He expressed sympathy for developers and their representatives.
“My biggest concern in this whole process is really how not only this applicant, but how other applicants who come to this county and develop, are going to perceive what our actions are going to be here tonight,” Kershner said. “They’ve put millions of dollars into an application like this. They have worked very closely with staff, put in hundreds and thousands of hours not only their selves, but hundreds of thousands of hours of [county] staff.”