Many longtime residents of Loudoun County post signs in their yards that proclaim "Don’t Supersize Loudoun!" and The Campaign for Loudoun’s Future is trying to prevent precisely that.
It may be too late. What was once a rural county an hour’s drive from Washington, DC, is now a sprawling urban community overwhelmed by traffic, crime and all the other problems that come from urbanization.
When Amy and I moved to the Washington area in 1981 Loudoun County reminded me of Floyd — a haven of country quiet just an hour’s drive from the city. But the quiet was short lived. Land speculators had already moved in, gobbling up family farms and laying out plans for lavish developments of country homes.
Some say the boom started when America On-Line decided to move its headquarters from Vienna to Loudoun County and spurred creation of a "technology corridor" along U.S. 50. Leesburg, the sleepy county seat, became just another suburban monument to urban sprawl — an endless collection of chain restaurants and shopping malls. In a few years Loudoun went from reminding me of Floyd to become a supersized clone of the Christiansburg-to-Blacksburg strip of shopping malls, car dealerships and neon signs.
Now the big money speculators are developing a "planned community" of 90,000 along U.S. 50, a new city, built from scratch, that would be larger than Manassas or Fredrick, Maryland — two more examples of what can happen when growth overcomes common sense.
The dangers of such sprawl are so great that even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues dire warnings like this:
In Northern Virginia, development is expanding beyond the current service areas of public water supplies provided by the Potomac River. Specifically, Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County’s population has increased by nearly 150 percent from 57,000 in 1980 to nearly 140,000 today, with the landscape changing from rural to suburban. Ground water is being utilized to support the uncontrolled growth. Yet, no assessment has been conducted on groundwater availability and how aquifers are being impacted by suburban sprawl.
In its path, sprawl consumes thousands of acres of forests and farmland, woodlands and wetlands. It requires government to spend millions extra to build new schools, streets and water and sewer lines. In its wake, sprawl leaves boarded up houses, vacant storefronts, closed businesses, abandoned and often contaminated industrial sites, and traffic congestion stretching miles from urban centers. There are over 700,000 kilometers of roads connecting urban areas within the Mid-Atlantic region! As a result, we suffer from increased traffic congestion, longer commutes, increased dependence on fossil fuels, crowded schools, worsening air and water pollution, threatened surface and ground water supplies, lost open space and wetlands, increased flooding, destroyed wildlife habitat, higher taxes, and dying city centers.
Moreover, sprawl is creating a hidden debt of unfunded infrastructure and services, social dysfunction, urban decay and environmental degradation. Despite the fact that Prince William County, Va., in metropolitan Washington, DC, has the highest property tax rate in the state of Virginia, the cost of providing services to new developments is so high, the county is experiencing a $1,688 shortfall for every new house built.
Perhaps more important is the loss of community: People visiting with one another on front porches; neighbors helping neighbors; everyone keeping an eye on each other’s children. This simply cannot happen on 5 acre lots where people live for years without ever knowing their neighbors!
Now we are running out of greener pastures and many Americans consider urban sprawl to be the fastest growing threat to their local environment and quality of life. They are starting to question the wisdom of growing faster than infrastructures can support or service. They are starting to recognize that decades of road building have yet to and may never alleviate traffic congestion. Some communities that once welcomed development with open arms now consider the cost of lost farm land not worth the benefits of a new strip mall.
Can it happen in Floyd? Yes. Will it happen? Probably, unless common sense overcomes greed. The warning signs are here: Overpriced, gated communities like Roanoke developer Jim Woltz’s Twin Falls, local speculators who plaster their walls with planned subdivisions and Realtors from Roanoke and the New River Valley who talk about opening new offices in Floyd to capitalize on the coming boom.
Some look warily at the construction underway in Floyd right now, some of it part of the "downtown revialization" project, and wonder if all the work is good or bad. Time will tell. Restoring the beauty of the town’s storefronts is a good idea. So is converting the old Farmer’s Grocery store into a useful property and building a new hotel with local themes.
But visitors approaching Floyd from Roanoke see not the beauty of a rustic country community but the neon signs of three chain stores as they enter the town on U.S. 221. Those driving in from Christiansburg encounter yet another neon sign for a discount chain store on Rte. 8. Each month, the county supervisors hide behind closed doors to discuss what concessions are needed to try and fill the mostly-unused industrial park.
Yes, the signs are here and speaking of signs, the first one you see when you enter Floyd County from the south on U.S. 221 is one of those state signs that proclaims "Entering Virginia’s Technology Corridor." I first saw one of those signs in 1981 along U.S. 50 West of Washington — not far from the site where America On-Line built its massive headquarters and started the "boom" that threatens to destroy Loudoun County.