The developing tale of two villages: What’s the story on St. Louis and Aldie?

By Laura Longley

Out of the haze of proposed land swaps, buyouts of by-right developments, and sale of County-owned parcels for a commercial “gateway” to Western Loudoun, the futures of the historic villages of Aldie and St. Louis are beginning to take shape. 

With the overwhelming support of the region’s preservation and civic groups, the Board of Supervisors is expected to move forward with a new offer from an Aldie resident that promises the survival of that small, historic village known for its working mill.

The outlook is far less certain for St. Louis, the historically African American community established after Emancipation when a former slaveholder subdivided his land and sold it off in one-acre plots for $20 each. Many of the descendants of those emancipated buyers—the McQuays, Howards, and Berrymans—still live in St. Louis, and now find themselves fighting for the community’s future. 

From the very beginning, St. Louis residents have been challenged by poor farmland and wetlands with poor drainage, but by the end of the 20th century, increasing development became the bigger threat. 

“As urban expansion began to reach St. Louis, new, more expensive homes went up, property taxes also went up, which had the domino effect of many ancestral families selling their land and homes,” wrote Charles Thompson, pastor of the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in an editorial in the Middleburg Eccentric.

So when the development group named MOJAX, LLC bought the Howard family’s 16.4-acre wooded parcel with by-right zoning, there was good reason to launch a nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping a 27-house cluster with individual wells. 

Finally, in the fall of 2020, Loudoun County’s Supervisors, who are committed to preserving St. Louis from this kind of intensive development, made an offer to the developer: The County would pay MOJAX $1.5 million to put a conservation easement on that land, and use the then-16 dug wells to augment the local water supply. The County would create a passive recreation area and protect a historic cemetery.

But, it’s fair to say, greed got in the way

The MOJAX developers—John “Jack” Andrews, architect Michael Oxman, and consultant Leonard “Hobie” Mitchel—backed out of that deal, but came back to the County with a grander one. 

As MOJAX attorney Jim Campell told the Board of Supervisors at its public hearing this past Jan. 13, “Our clients have $2.7 million out of pocket in St. Louis, but the current appraised value is $3.4 million.” To balance the scales as they saw them, the MOJAX developers proposed that in addition to the $1.5 million for the St. Louis easement, the County transfer to them the “Aldie Assemblage”—three parcels totaling 6.3 acres the County had purchased for a new Aldie fire station, a location rejected by the community. 

What MOJAX put forward as an add-on to the St. Louis transaction, was a project called Aldie Park that, said Campbell, “would get us back to whole and allow us to do something we’ve had passion about for decades.”  

The project they presented to the Board comprised 35,000-square-feet of commercial structures including a brewery, retail shops, an administration building, an artist studio, and a high-end restaurant and inn, plus parking for 170-some vehicles. 

The deal required rezoning, a $600,000 escrow payment by the County to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the developer for building renovations and construction of an access road from Rt. 50 to the 60 adjoining, landlocked acres owned by developer Andrews.

But Aldie had a savior

Guy Gerachis, a lifelong Loudoun and 30-year Aldie resident, Aldie Heritage Association member, and an award-winning builder known for his expertise in historic properties, came forward. 

In no time, his modest plan and offer based on current appraised value, won the community’s enthusiasm and formal support of Loudoun’s preservation and conservation groups. 

Before their 9-0 vote on this process, Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) cited the support of residents and organizations. 

“We’re opening this up for 30 days,” explained Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), “but for me there’s one offer on the table, and I’m in support of it,” she added.

But what about St. Louis?

The end of the Aldie-Andrews “gateway” proposal spelled the death of the Loudoun County-MOJAX deal, with Loudoun County paying MOJAX $1.5 million in exchange for a permanent conservation easement on the St. Louis land.

Now, as a step toward protecting St. Louis, Buffington has initiated a public input process, to engage St. Louis residents in a review of the 2019 Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinances, with the aim of restricting planned or permitted uses and density. 

But St. Louis residents are skeptical. At an April 27 meeting in St. Louis, Randall tried to explain the obstacles, including MOJAX’s right to develop the property without Board approval, and the doubling of the original price tag, from $1.5 million to $2.7 million, and possibly higher.

She explained a process for fast-tracking the County’s review of zoning ordinances relevant to St. Louis, ahead of the overall 2019 Comprehensive Plan review. But until there are firm dates on the calendar for hearings and action items, residents and friends of St. Louis are likely to remain anxious about their future.

Sharon Peterson, who spoke at the April 20 Board meeting, cited water and taxes as her major worries, but she also touched on the heritage she feels she may lose forever.

“My family has been here since the late 1700s. My great-uncle, Phil McQuay, came back from St. Louis to buy land here and gave the place its name. My grandmother, Mattie Berryman, lived in the area and taught at a one-room school. My mother was a secretary at Banneker in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, just to give you an idea of why St. Louis is so important to me and so personal.

“Am I going to have to leave here, where I was born and grew up?” she asked.

“I am a retired widow on a budget. I have no one to depend on. If there were too many houses here and my well runs dry, I can’t afford to dig a new one. I can’t afford for my property taxes to go up … The water smells now, and I don’t want the day to come when I turn on the faucet and nothing comes out …

“Protect us from the development. Protect us from MOJAX.  We thought everything was going to be taken care of, and now that isn’t so … Please don’t let me lose my home.”

At the same Board meeting, speaking on behalf of the Piedmont Environmental Council, Gem Bingol urged the Supervisors to “act immediately to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the St. Louis residents. Please pass a resolution to pause any additional well permits until the County completes a hydrogeological study to understand the physical carrying capacity of the land in and around the village.” 

The New Aldie Proposal

Guy Gerachis, of Gerachis Construction Group, LLC, has proposed “restoring /refurbishing structures primarily for residential use, and clearing away decrepit outbuildings. No new structures would be built, and no zoning changes requested. Needed commercial and residential space, made attractive, would be available in the village and back on the tax rolls . . . Over time, depending on the ultimate disposition of the existing firehouse, a community center could be visualized.” 

The Board will consider other offers until May 26.

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