Loudoun County supervisors have their starting points for how new local election districts will be drawn.
At the state level, the redistricting commission’s effort to draw new state Senate and House of Delegates electoral districts collapsed, with a commission evenly split between Republicans and Democrats unable to come to a compromise, putting that job in the hands of the state Supreme Court. But the Loudoun Board of Supervisors will take a very different approach—they retain the power to draw their own districts—and supervisors are hopeful for a process much less mired in politics.
On Tuesday night, county staff members showed supervisors seven possible starting points for drawing those new maps, each designed to accomplish different goals while observing guidelines such as containing roughly equal populations. They represent a range of different philosophies about how Loudouners should be able to pick their Board of Supervisors and School Board representatives.
And each of those will involve some compromise.
One scenario simply seeks to avoid splitting Census Designated Places, areas that are not incorporated into towns or cities, but which are considered communities and tracked together for statistical purposes. In Loudoun, Census Designated Places include familiar names like Aldie, Ashburn, Brambleton and Sterling, which are well known to residents but may have no formal delineation in local government.
The first draft of that map would see a single large district covering much of what is today considered western Loudoun. It also maintains the geographical oddity of a district split in half by Dulles Airport, which is today considered part of the Dulles District, but as federal land is subject to little local authority. The Dulles Town Center, communities between Loudoun County Parkway and Rt. 28, and parts of Sterling south of Sterling Boulevard and the W&OD Trail would share a county supervisor with the densely populated communities north of Braddock Road and east of Gum Spring Road, including South Riding.
That made that map a non-starter for at least one supervisor, Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).
“It has South Riding in the same district as Dulles Town Center and Kincora,” Letourneau said at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. “People in South Riding don’t even go to the Dulles Town Center mall—they go to Fair Oaks.”
Other scenarios emphasize other goals—such as creating a district that represents the Transition Policy Area, or creating one district to contain the Urban Policy Area and two rural western districts.
But all of those—and the four other scenarios—supervisors emphasized emphasized are only starting points.
“When the board sort of puts these out there for the public, there is going to be some sense that, ‘okay, these are things that the board’s considering,’ and I would say right off the bat I’m not considering a whole bunch of these things,” Letourneau said.
And when Loudoun County opens an online tool Nov. 1 to allow the public to submit their own maps, Randall said she expects to see many more proposals. But, she said, the board will try to give western Loudoun two districts again.
Doubling Up in the West
Early in redistricting talks, Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) sought to get his colleagues to commit to having two western districts in the next local electoral map. The county board did not go along with that.
Even 10 years ago, the effort to give Loudoun two western supervisors led to some of the oddities of the local districts today. The northwestern district, the Catoctin District, wraps all the way around Leesburg, meaning people in River Creek vote for the same supervisor as people in Lovettsville. Meanwhile, the Blue Ridge District takes up literally half of the county, reaching from the western border to Dulles Airport—and consequently is also the largest district by population by far today.
Since those districts were drawn in 2011, Loudoun’s population has grown by more than 100,000, mostly in the east. But both Buffington and Randall said they would like to see two western supervisors again.
With the rural west sparsely populated compared to the east, the staff plan to create two western districts finds the population numbers to fill out those districts by splitting the people of Leesburg—who are represented in many local government matters by the Leesburg Town Council—between two districts. Today, the town and district boundaries mostly overlap. Under the new scenario, for the most part, people living south of Rt. 7 in Leesburg would live in one district, and people living north of the road would live in another.
Buffington said, “generally speaking, the town takes care of itself.” Many of the things the Board of Supervisors spends its time on—such as land use applications from developers—are the Town Council’s responsibility within town limits.
“Leesburg is covered by the Town Council, and there’s very few—actually none that I can think of—applications that have come forward in the town that the board has had to take action,” Buffington said.
“Somebody said to me one time that the Leesburg supervisor, as great as she is, and she is just absolutely wonderful, often doesn’t have a whole lot of constituents to do things for because they have an entire town council,” Randall said.
And, on the other hand, she said, it makes sense to group some people living outside the town with people in Leesburg, since they buy their water and sewer service from the town rather than Loudoun Water.
“I think it makes some sense to put River Creek and that Red Rocks area into Leesburg, because they pay the Leesburg out-of-town water rates, and right now they’re in Catoctin,” she said. “So there are some things that just make common sense to me, but the numbers will guide us.”
And Buffington is skeptical of drawing a district stretching from the rural areas to the suburbs.
“I think it puts somebody in an extremely tough position, which is exactly the position that I’ve been in for the last six years, which is that you represent too many varied interests,” he said.
Randall has also previously worried that under the current districts, both western Loudoun supervisors could theoretically live in the suburban east. If Leesburg is split, they could both live in town.
“A western Loudoun supervisor could be representing western Loudoun and live in the heart of Leesburg, and so that’s why I say it’s a good starting point, I don’t say it’s a good finishing point,” Buffington said. “There needs to be a lot more public input on this, there needs to be a lot more thought on this.”
Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) said during the Oct. 19 meeting he has concerns about splitting up Leesburg.
“I appreciate what Mr. Buffington had to say and trying to get, perhaps, two rural policy districts. I just don’t know if that’s even possible, given how this the status the district is changed,” Kershner said.
There is one proposal supervisors will not consider—one designed to resemble the current local electoral districts as much as possible. That one preserves gerrymandering oddities seen in today’s districts like a western Loudoun district that wraps around Leesburg, today’s Catoctin District; or another western Loudoun District that reaches all the way from Clarke County to the county’s eastern border with Fairfax, today’s Blue Ridge District.
Lessons from the Past
Scott York—who served on the Loudoun Board of Supervisors for 20 years, including 16 as chairman—has seen this one before. He led the board during the county’s fastest-growing period, and took part in both the 2001 and 2011 efforts to draw new electoral maps.
Although York is a lifelong Republican, in 2011, too, there was a Democratic majority on the board.
“The dominant political party at that time, which was a majority of Democrats, decided to gerrymander—and I use that term loosely—the map,” York said. “And so you had configurations of districts that didn’t make any sense, but they did it to accommodate one supervisor and tried to also keep control of the board. … The irony was, it didn’t help them in the end.”
Some of that year’s redistricting work was led by the then-chair of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee Chairman and now-Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn).
It was in the very next election that Loudoun elected an all-Republican Board of Supervisors. York suggested keeping it simple this time around.
“It’s kind of an interesting county because you’ve got one part of it with the heavy population, and you have the other part that is way less dense in population,” York said. “The best thing to do is to try to keep your districts compact the best you can, and not to try to gerrymander them around for political benefit, and move forward with it.”
Randall has also said she has no interest in gerrymandering.
“As far as I’m concerned, as long as we stick to the criteria, and as long as there’s no gerrymandering for any reason, that’s all I care about,” Randall said.
And while protecting incumbents was often discussed at the state level—as well as the previous round of local redistricting—Randall said that she is not interested in doing that in Loudoun.
“That last time we did this 10 years ago, it was actually written in their criteria to protect incumbents, and I remember looking at that document and catching my breath—like, you’ve got to be kidding,” she said.
Draw Your Own Map
As supervisors look at the first map scenarios, Loudoun County has launched its Local Redistricting Hub, which provides access to interactive maps and geographic data important for public participation in the redistricting process, at loudoun-county-redistricting-2021-loudoungis.hub.arcgis.com.
And on Nov. 1, an online mapping tool is planned to go online at the redistricting website, letting residents try their hand at drawing new electoral maps.
The redistricting hub will be updated on a rolling basis to include additional interactive maps, data, and training materials for the public, according to the county. In November, the county government will gather feedback from the public on those scenarios, and members of the public will have an opportunity to use them as a starting point to design their own redistricting plans or create their own from scratch.
The Board of Supervisors is expected start debating redistricting options in January and is scheduled to adopt the final plan in May. For more information, or to sign up for project updates, go to loudoun.gov/redistricting.
This article was updated Nov. 30, 2021 at 7:09 p.m. to correct a typo.