A New Deal for Aldie and St. Louis: Can these rural villages survive it?
By Laura Longley
Tangled in real estate deals between Loudoun County and developers, the fates of two small rural villages—St. Louis and Aldie—are now in the hands of the County’s five-member finance committee.
From Supervisors’ comments at the Board’s Jan. 13 public hearing on the developers’ proposal, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether Aldie will have a fair shot at warding off a 35,000-square-foot commercial “gateway” to western Loudoun at the village’s eastern edge.
What’s the deal?
The deal now under Board of Supervisors finance committee review is an expansion of an earlier proposal first made by the County to John “Jack” Andrews (who works with Leonard “Hobie” Mitchel)—Mojax, LLC. That proposal would have paid them $1.5 million to put a conservation easement on their 16.4 acres in St. Louis, slated for a 27-house, by-right development, and to use the 16 dug wells to augment St. Louis’s subpar water supply. The County would create a passive recreation area and protect an old cemetery in this historically African American village.
All seemed well until Mojax learned that Virginia’s tax credits might dry up in 2021, so the company backed out of the deal.
After Mojax withdrew its approval, the developers returned to the County to explore alternatives with Loudoun County Attorney Leo Rogers. What emerged from those discussions and a closed, Dec. 1 midnight session of the Board of Supervisors was an expanded deal that would bring into play 6.3 acres in three parcels in nearby Aldie known as the “Aldie Assemblage.”
Mojax attorneys laid out the whys and hows for that deal in the January hearing. Jim Campbell of Leesburg-based Campbell Flannery PC explained to the Board: “The reality is our clients have $2.7 million out of pocket in St. Louis, but the current appraised value is $3.4 million. But this project”—the gateway the developers call “Aldie Park”—gets us back to whole, and allows us to do something we’ve had passion about for decades.”
As envisioned and presented to the Board in full renderings, the “gateway to the west” would feature a brewery, retail shops, offices, an administration building, possibly an artist studio, and an 1820s tavern renovated into a high-end restaurant and inn.
The price tag for the deal would include a $600,000 escrow payment by the County to be matched dollar for dollar by the developer to renovate the tavern and construct a road from the 60 adjoining acres owned by Andrews to Rt. 50. Andrews currently says he would use the 60 acres to create hiking trails, but any plans he might have for that acreage would be subject to resolution of a lawsuit with the Land Trust of Virginia.
Mojax has been here before
Mojax and fellow developer Hobie Mitchel have been keen on acquiring these 6.3 acres in Aldie for the better part of two decades. In fact, they had the three contiguous parcels known as the “Aldie Assemblage” under contract until the County bought the land in 2015 as a potential site for a fire station. After the community opposed that site for the fire station, the County was left holding the 6.3 acres and its buildings, which is why it has this property to deploy in negotiations with Mojax.
What became clear in the January hearing is that Aldie may have an uphill climb in successfully opposing this deal, even as its residents have put forward at least two bona fide cash offers.
Memories of the costly struggle to find a site for a new fire station for the Aldie area clearly remain fresh in several Supervisors’ minds, even though the fire station search eventually yielded a mutually acceptable site at the intersection of Rts. 50 and 15. Most of the Supervisors also repeatedly reminded Aldie residents that Mojax could resume work on the St. Louis development tomorrow.
Given that the St. Louis-Aldie issues are complex from both a financial and land-use perspective, many community members were surprised to hear Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), chair of the finance committee, weighing in at this early date on the aesthetics and economic value of the Mojax project in Aldie.
“As far as what has been proposed as the concept,” said Letourneau, “I think it’s intriguing. I think the challenge we have is that any time someone wants to do something that’s big and bold and potentially significant, there’s always going to be questions that have to be answered … I see this project as potentially … providing something that could be a crown jewel for us.”
Letourneau said that in order to keep western Loudoun from having densities similar to the eastern part of the County, western Loudoun must continue to have strong tourism options.
Officials raising concerns about the deal and the developers
Prior to the public hearing, Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), the mayors of Loudoun’s seven towns, including Mayor Bridge Littleton of nearby Middleburg, residents of Aldie and St. Louis, and area preservationists brought up their concerns about the St. Louis-Aldie projects and the developers, in letters to the Board of Supervisors. Buffington, who initially supported the deal but now opposes it, focused his letter on public records that document infractions by the developers.
In their letter to the supervisors, the mayors of the Coalition of Loudoun Towns (COLT) wrote: “Our objections to this transaction rest on two key elements: First, the history and background of Mojax, LLC in its dealings with the County and other parties in Loudoun; and second, the proposed transaction is not a good deal for the citizens.
“Mojax, LLC has been the subject of a number of complaints over the last several years, including matters that are still unresolved … We do not have confidence that any restriction or limitation placed on Mojax, LLC by the County would be respected in the long term. We fear that a violation would result in a fine with no remediation, leaving the residents of both villages to suffer the long-term effects.
“Relating to the second issue,” the mayors went on, “we are concerned that this current deal is unfavorable to the County and its citizens … We recommend the County perform a charrette to engage the full community, both citizens and business, to develop viable options which are in alignment with the community’s vision and value. As the County has multiple bona fide offers now, this will only help to open the view and bring better options to the table for the County and the public.”
Madeline Skinner, chair of the Loudoun Alliance of Historic Villages, echoed the mayors’ charrette recommendation. “As it states in the 2019 Comprehensive Plan, a new structure within the rural historic village must be compatible with existing buildings and contribute to the character of the village. There is nothing compatible about this concept. Even their plan for the tavern house goes against historic district guidelines. My hope for 2021 is for the County to uphold what is written in the 2019 Comprehensive Plan—to work with each village to produce a plan with the village residents’ input and joint meetings with County staff.
Katie Johnson, president of the Aldie Heritage Association, agreed. “Our goal has always been to help the County to secure a preservation-minded buyer who would become part of the community. Based on our review of the documents provided online and the material we received from the developers when they met with us on Jan. 10 at our request, we have real concerns about the proposal … We are asking that this complex proposal be sent to the appropriate departments within the County for further review and study, and the County consider any viable alternatives.
“We want to see a positive outcome for both of our villages,” she added. “This deal is large, and it is complex, and it could change the face of Aldie forever. It deserves a complete analysis.”