Lessons from the battle over Goose Creek Overlook

By Laura Longley

Goose Creek Overlook votes will be remembered for turning the tide on a big development, but what they surfaced about Loudoun’s leaders and “place types” may be more revealing in the long run.

Until March 16’s final Board of Supervisors vote on the controversial Goose Creek Overlook development, you’d have found quite a few Loudoun County planning officials and staff members, developers, environmentalists, and nonprofit organization leaders in the weeds of Goose Creek near the Sycolin Road bridge—some literally, others figuratively, as they revisited their strategies and positions one last time.  

As most Loudouners who keep up with local news know, on March 2 the Board of Supervisors voted 5 to 4 to approve the Goose Creek Overlook application. It promised all kinds of good things, Board proponents explained: trails to become part of Loudoun’s Emerald Ribbons network, parking near the creek close to a kayak and canoe launch, an active recreation area, and, most important, 75 Affordable Housing Units.

Others, who forecast a future absent native plants and trees, wildlife, clean water, and a place to refresh body and soul, saw in the Goose Creek Overlook approval a lost cause and deepening threat to an irreplaceable environmental resource. 

But the tide turned on the development two days later when Supervisor Mike Turner (D-Ashburn) had a change of heart and mind. He asked Board Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At-Large) for a revote to be held on March 16, which resulted in a 6-2-1 split for denial of Goose Creek Overlook.

“Over the course of the past year, I think I lost sight of the forest for the trees— literally,” Turner said. “I’ve certainly done a disservice to the applicant, but refusing to admit my mistake would have done a far greater disservice to my constituents and the citizens of Loudoun County.” 

He made the point that he had talked with only one or two individuals over a two-day period after the first vote. He reread sections of the Loudoun County Comprehensive Plan, and grew increasingly uncomfortable that County planning staff might have weighted their assessment of the development application toward approval knowing of the Board’s goal to increase affordable housing in Loudoun. 

Other supervisors who had voted against the development on March 2—Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling)—stayed with their votes on the 16th. The same held true for Juli Briskman (D-Algonkian) and Sylvia Glass (D-Broad Run) in their votes to approve Goose Creek Overlook. 

Randall clearly knew her own mind: “We only have one earth.”

Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) voted “yes” with Turner the first time around and followed Turner’s lead in the second vote, denying the development. As he wrote to constituents, he decided to change his vote after “further discussions with the Goose Creek Association regarding their concerns with the application.” 

Given that Buffington’s vote could have changed the outcome in the first round, ensuring the defeat of the development, it’s fair to wonder why the representative of Loudoun’s most rural district didn’t pursue “further discussions” with the Goose Creek Association earlier. 

The association has been fighting to protect the Goose for 50 years. In 2020, they made their case for saving Goose Creek in an award-winning documentary about the relentless threats to Goose Creek. It has been available at goosecreek.org for months. 

Similarly, the Piedmont Environmental Council, Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area Association, Loudoun Coalition of Towns, and the Loudoun Historic Village Alliance have consistently made their voices heard at Board of Supervisors public hearings.

Catoctin District Supervisor Caleb Kershner explained his abstention in the final round in a 1,100-word Facebook post:

“When the Goose Creek Overlook application came in . . . I went to the site, walked the area, and met and questioned the developer’s representatives. I asked questions of our staff, spoke to other supervisors about it, and made a thorough inquiry and research.”

He provided his analysis and assessment of protections of the creek, weighing them against impacts of by- right development. 

He evaluated the applicant’s promises and proffers for: 

  • strong stormwater management commitment 
  • increased erosion and sediment controls 
  • sewer pump station required to meet all Loudoun Water’s requirements and design specifications. 
  • commitment to plant Northern Virginia native trees 
  • recommendation of the experts on County staff
  • Planning Commission’s vote
  • views of the other district supervisors, in particular those of the two supervisors for the districts where this parcel sits (Supervisors Buffington and Turner) 
  • public access and kayak landing
  • continuation of stream trail
  • public park
  • workforce housing

“Rest assured that I continue to be dedicated to preserving Western Loudoun, our waterways, and our natural landscape. I am already looking at the possibility of a change to the zoning laws that would require a greater setback from Goose Creek than our current zoning ordinance requires.” 

“Thanks for explaining,” Jeremy Dalpiaz commented on Kershner’s page. “However, nowhere in this explanation do you mention that you considered the views of your constituents. I appreciate the staff views—having been a legislative staffer myself—but it is important to remember your ability to vote on these matters comes from the voters, not the staff.” 

Why “place type” proved pivotal

It was Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) who proved to be the surprise vote to deny the development application. He voted against the development in that location because, according to the 2019 Comprehensive Plan, it wasn’t the right “Place Type.”  

The Loudoun County 2019 Comprehensive Plan serves as the “umbrella” for the County’s planning efforts and consists of the General Plan and the 2019 Countywide Transportation Plan. A key section—Chapter 2 of the General Plan—is “Land Use,” which “lays out the vision for Loudoun’s future land uses, growth management, and built environment . . . Place Types guide the intent, form, character, and anticipated uses within each policy area.” 

The Plan makes clear that “the Place Type approach differs from the County’s previous approach to land use planning in that it provides a way to shape the future of Loudoun by concentrating on context – the look and feel of places, their form and their character – instead of focusing only on conventional land use.”

Coincidence or not, it’s worth noting that five of the six supervisors who ultimately voted to deny the Goose Creek Overlook development —Buffington, Letourneau, Randall, Saines, and Umstattd—had served on the Board that guided the Comprehensive Plan to approval. 

Before their final vote, a woman named Joan Henry stepped up to the microphone in the Board Room. “I’ve worked with vulnerable populations all of my adult life,” she began. “I get the need for affordable housing in Loudoun … In this case, the developer and his associates are painting a false narrative. They’re saying that any opposition to this development is an indictment of affordable housing. It is not. What you are voting on—our opposition to—is a specific site location. Goose Creek Overlook is wrong on all levels, including environmental and fiscal.

“It is in fact an irresponsible location,” Henry went on. “Your site does not meet a single criterion, not one, of any criteria recommended for the location of ADU sites. In short, it is not near anything. 

“[Regarding] safety: two of the criteria for ADUs are defensible spaces and walkability. Do any of us really want the elderly, the infirm, teenagers, mothers pushing strollers trying to navigate down Sycolin, across the bridge, to get to stores they cannot afford? 

“Vulnerable people often have to work multiple jobs. Do you really want curious toddlers, teenagers wandering down to a kayak launch right above a spillway on the river? As a guardian, I would never have recommended or approved placement of one of my kids in such a location.

“I urge you to vote no,” she concluded. “Find alternative sites for affordable housing that meet the needs of the tenants without putting their lives in extreme jeopardy.”

Somehow, early on in those weeds of Goose Creek Overlook, the concept of place type got lost. In the end, with speakers like Joan Henry reminding them of the primacy of place, a majority of supervisors found it again.

If the battle over Goose Creek Overlook has left Loudouners with any useful lessons, perhaps they are these: speak up early and often; stay out of the weeds; read the Comprehensive Plan; learn about Loudoun’s place types; and listen to your constituents.

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