Eminent Domain, Redevelopment Policies Spark Debate: Leesburg VA Today, 5/24/07

By Dusty Smith

A debate stirred this week in which some homeowners passionately stated their cases for keeping their communities in tact, and barring developers from buying up property and permanently changing the landscape. Some defended their right to sell their property to developers if they chose.

And while the arguments may sound like those made by western Loudoun residents trying to preserve their rural lifestyle or sell the farm over the past decade, the concerns were raised by eastern Loudoun residents opposed to high-density redevelopment.

People on both sides of the issue spoke during a Loudoun Planning Commission public hearing Monday regarding a comprehensive plan amendment that would: bar the county from taking land through eminent domain and giving it to a private entity for economic development purposes; eliminate the term "redevelopment" from the comprehensive plan; and remove language calling for construction of mixed-use town centers in communities east of Rt. 28.

Supervisor Mick Staton (R-Sugarland Run) initiated the change and explained why to commissioners during the hearing. He said fears about the use of eminent domain was not the sole focus of the CPAM despite the recent attention brought to that element. The CPAM has been labeled Eminent Domain and Protection of Existing Communities.

"To me, it's the other way around," he said, detailing his concern that town centers one day could be built over top of older communities in Sterling Park or Sugarland Run because the comprehensive plan permits it. "They are suburban. They are built out. The citizens there don't want to see a lot of change ... [or] a change to a more intense use."

Staton said he has observed the "suburban fringe" of the Washington Metropolitan Area ripple outward as older suburbs closer to the city are converted to high-density developments.

"As long as our plan envisions the redevelopment of these areas of eastern Loudoun, someone will try it," he said, adding that he would prefer the comprehensive plan encourage revitalization of communities.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision two years ago supported a Connecticut town's use of eminent domain to take property and give it to a public entity for economic development purposes. That decision led Staton to also address eminent domain in his initiative out of concern "that this was going to be the beginning of a new wave of eminent domain," he said.

"Am I looking to limit what we do in the future? Absolutely," Staton told the commission. "I want to give the people who live in those areas the assurance that a developer's not going to be knocking on their doors, trying to buy their property. Next thing you know, we've got a Reston Town Center."

Nine people spoke during the hearing, about equally split in their opinion about whether the CPAM is needed.

Robert Miller, a resident of Sugarland Run for more than 30 years, said he has already received offers to buy his property and that he supports the plan changes. The opportunity to build up the tax base could tempt future boards to allow drastic changes to the area, he told the commission.

"We do not want to see this type of issue, redevelopment," he said. "Revitalization, yes. Redevelopment is codeword for increasing your tax base."

Taylor Jarnagan, however, said concerns about takings through eminent domain, as permitted by the Supreme Court decision, were taken care of in Virginia when the state legislature enacted a law banning the takings for economic development purposes. He also pointed out that some Sugarland Run residents might be willing sellers. And, he said public hearings would have to be held before any major changes could occur.

"If we say that no redevelopment would be allowed ... then I am concerned," he said. He asked commissioners if they would approve such a development. Commissioner Suzanne Volpe (Sugarland Run) said that other people could be in the commission's seats next year.

Planning staff members expressed concerns about the "unintended consequences" of precluding redevelopment in eastern communities.

Joseph Paciulli, a member and former chairman of the Economic Development Commission, said that group does not see the need for changing the plan.

Volpe said she's been hearing from neighbors expressing concerns that the area will morph into a Tysons Corner. "This is a serious issue," she said.

County Chairman Scott K. York (I-At Large), who lives in Sterling, last week became aware of information that one of Sugarland Run's two homeowners associations distributed recently, which he said was fueled by election year scare tactics. He pointed to campaign fliers from Staton's 2003 election campaign raising the same types of concerns.

York pointed to the state law banning the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes, and said that county policies would only allow the use of eminent domain for a public use site, such as a school or a sheriff's station, and only as a last resort. In the comprehensive plan, York said, eminent domain is only mentioned in reference to obtaining small pieces of right of way for transportation projects.

Staton said the state legislature declined to push for a constitutional amendment banning eminent domain for economic development purposes and therefore the law could be changed in any given year. Because of that, he said the county should make its own statement opposing such uses. However, he also said he believes there is still reason to believe developers will push place high-rise residential units in eastern Loudoun.

The commission voted unanimously to send the item to a Committee of the Whole work session for further review. Commissioner Nancy Doane (Catoctin) made a substitute motion to seek input from the board of supervisors about whether the eminent domain part of the CPAM should be separated from the town center and redevelopment elements; however, after a brief discussion she voted along with the rest of the commission against it.

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