In a fast-growing county, sprawl teaches hard lessons

Virginia's Loudoun County is 'a little test tube' for coping with hypergrowth on the far fringes of many American cities.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

A decade ago Virginia's Loudoun County, tucked 25 miles from Washington, D.C., at the West Virginia border, was best known for its pastoral horse country and gracious farms.

Today it's the poster child for development run amok.

Just ask Juan Bocher, whose commute to his job just outside Washington has gone from 30 minutes to nearly 90. "It's gone from bad to worse, and there's no end in sight," he says.

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Or Nancy Meissner, who lives in what remains of rural Loudoun County, where McMansion-style subdivisions are being built with septic tanks because there are no water lines. "This awful sludge is bubbling out of the ground," she says. "And these are the new septic systems that are already failing!"

The growing pains of Loudoun, the nation's fastest-growing county in the past five years, not only has residents up in arms, but have also drawn the attention of land-use experts across the United States. That's because exurbs - suburbs at the fringes of metropolitan areas - are growing faster than any other kind of community, according to census data. While high-speed growth has transformed suburbia for decades, what is new - and worrying - is that it's now occurring in areas without the infrastructure or experience to deal with it, these experts say.

"How Loudoun deals with its growth can teach the rest of the country a great deal," says James DeFrancia, a trustee of the Urban Land Institute. "It's become a little test tube."

The hypergrowth has political ramifications, too. Last fall, traditional Republican strongholds like Loudoun County and other Virginia exurbs voted for Tim Kaine, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who won on a platform of controlled growth and traffic management.

"It is unusual that Kaine won in all of the traditionally Republican exurbs," says Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "The obvious lesson for politicians is to pay attention to how much development people can tolerate. It's limited."

Loudoun County's growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. Spurred by the Washington area's boom in high-tech and government jobs, along with the search for affordable housing in Washington's sizzling real estate market, its population has tripled in 15 years. In the past five years alone, it surged 46 percent, from 169,599 to 247,293. In 2004, its growth accounted for one-quarter of the population increase throughout the Washington metro area - itself one of the fastest- growing parts of the US.

The effects of such rapid development have been intense. At rush hour, rural Loudoun's scenic two-lane byways crawl with traffic that moves more slowly than the new six-lane access road to the east. Air quality has worsened as smog levels have shot up. As thousands of new houses go up each year ahead of water and sewer lines, residents face water shortages and newly polluted streams. If current growth continues, the county estimates it will need 125 grammar schools in the next 15 years.

Land-use experts say what's happening in Loudoun today will challenge communities on the outer fringes of cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Seattle over the next 20 years.

"Loudoun is the poster-child example of what can happen when a community is developing too fast," says Laura Olson of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "It can't keep up with schools, services, roads, recreation - and especially water and septic needs."

Land-use experts say there's only one solution: heavy regulation. "The trouble with managing smart growth is that it requires almost complete governmental control," says Anthony Downs, a land-use analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Downs and others call for regulated "smart-growth" zoning, with dense, mixed-use developments alternating with swaths of open land. They also stress the need for regional planning, which they say is lacking in many metropolitan areas facing exurban sprawl.

Until recently, such tight zoning regulations would have been unthinkable in a place where landowners cherish their autonomy and fight down-zoning.

But lately, "the outcry to do something about the growth has been a lot louder" than the outcry for property rights, says Jim Burton, who sits on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. "The great American dream is turning into the great American nightmare."

After years of political battles, Loudoun officials last spring drew up a zoning plan with input from experts like Downs, which would have limited development in rural parts of the county and encouraged denser, mixed-use, mixed-income growth in the developed parts. The Supreme Court of Virginia threw out the plan, on a technicality, and county planners hope the plan will be approved this year after a rewrite.

Meanwhile, development is "nearly a free-for-all," says county planner Julie Pastor, as builders rush to start projects before regulations are in place.

That's where other communities on the fast-growth path should watch and learn, says Mr. DeFrancia. "The lesson to be learned is to put in a master plan and rigidly adhere to it."

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