Can Loudoun’s historic villages be saved?

Loudoun County’s rural villages are irreplaceable, and yet, somehow, we seem determined to let the present destroy their past. 

“Their buildings and settings document Loudoun County’s history, through war and peace, growth and decline, changes in commerce, agriculture, and transportation. The social and cultural heritage they represent, and their vitality today, make them a vital part of the overall character of rural Loudoun,” the Loudoun Historic Village Alliance notes on its website.

It’s the job of the County to serve as steward of these historical assets, but without the intense involvement of villagers and conservationists, the villages are becoming increasingly threatened.

That fact is due in large part to breakdowns in the management of day-to-day work around County planning, zoning, environmental health, and transportation. 

Brinksmanship seems to be the operating methodology for County management of villages.

The best example at the moment is the County-Mojax developer’s deal involving the villages of Saint Louis and Aldie. This situation has come about in the wake of two separate community struggles: 1) Saint Louis’s attempt to push back against Mojax and prevent construction of a 30-house subdivision that would impact the village’s water supply, and 2) resolution of a multi-year struggle between the County and Aldie over a new firehouse that the County has wanted to put right in the middle of the village. One of the pawns in the game was the abandoned Aldie Tavern, which was almost demolished or moved in the match. Today, if all goes well with a public meeting on Jan. 13, we may see a swap of land and interests between Aldie and Saint Louis, brokered by the County and Mojax.

Meanwhile, up the road, an under-the-radar effort by Loudoun Fire and Rescue to build a big, brand new firehouse in the little village of Philomont moved briskly through County channels with a surprise $25 million in funding added to the ballot last fall. Another village, Bluemont, is under assault by breweries—rural bars—that not only create noise but spill tipsy patrons out onto the backroads. Safety has become a serious concern. 

An especially disconcerting aspect to the County’s lack of village protection is its enthusiastic embrace of these special places for promoting tourism. Visit the website and read the entry for the Aldie Mill; the new firehouse would have been its neighbor. Or check one of the three entries about Lincoln, which begins this way: “The small picturesque Quaker village known as Lincoln is located just south of Purcellville. Visitors can tour the village that features some of Loudoun’s most endearing and endangered treasures . . .”

The County’s latest example of Lincoln endangerment occurred on Nov. 9, 2020, when the Historic District Review Committee approved a “Certificate of Appropriateness” for a 5,250-square foot house—double the size of homes in that historic district of Loudoun. It is to be built just a few hundred yards from the modest 1817 Goose Creek Friends Meeting House.

Is there a way for Loudoun County to hold off threats to the historic villages?

After a thorough review of the Loudoun County Zoning Ordinance Rewrite Consultant Code Audit—please forgive the government gobbledygook—Maura Walsh-Copeland, chair of the Loudoun County Preservation and Coalition Zoning Committee, began looking for ways to solve the County vs. villages conundrum. The 2019 Comprehensive Plan—approved 18 months ago—clearly laid out the path for how to preserve historic villages. The consultant’s Code Audit now provides more details for how to modify zoning to ensure that preservation. The audit is due to be closely reviewed by the County and the Zoning Ordinance Committee with public input starting this month.  

The Code Audit was presented to the County’s Transportation and Land Use Committee at its Dec. 16 meeting and recommends that the County “replace the existing Village Conservation Overlay District  and the underlying zoning districts for the Traditional Villages with Neighborhood Conservation Districts based on the existing historic development patterns of the villages.” 

Currently, that overlay district applies to a general, one-size-fits-all approach, which may not recognize individual village development patterns. The intent of the new ordinance would be to rectify Place Type boundaries and the Village Conservation Overlay District, and implement a new regulatory mechanism, such as a Village Conservation District, that would recognize and perpetuate historic development patterns of individual villages. In Loudoun that means Aldie, Bluemont, Lincoln, Paeonian Springs, Philomont, Saint Louis, Taylorstown, Unison, and Waterford.

The Code Audit begs this question for the County: Is there any will/or any way to begin implementing some of the procedural recommendations to sync new zoning to the Comprehensive Plan, and give staff the proper authority and tools sooner, rather than waiting another full year due to the COVID-19 delays of the rewrite?

For the sake of our endangered villages, we sure hope so.

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