Loudoun Landowners Battle Building Curbs - Flurry of Lawsuits Viewed as Backlash

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2003; Page A01

Tucked inside the historic, red-brick court complex in Leesburg, a judge and a team of clerks are digging their way through an onslaught of paper that could determine the future of the nation's second-fastest-growing county.

At issue is a law -- passed by Loudoun County supervisors in January after three years of raucous debate -- that blocks construction of more than 80,000 homes worth tens of billions of dollars.

The strict building curbs within the law were a backlash against the kind of suburban expansion that has spread around American cities for decades. In Loudoun's case, the population nearly doubled in the 1990s, transforming rural landscapes, spurring costly school construction and prompting some of this region's toughest land use controls.

Those, in turn, have been matched by a muscular response. Opponents filed more than 200 lawsuits in January and February to overturn the measures, launching one of the broadest legal challenges to a local government in Virginia history.

Many challengers in this fall's countywide election say incumbents elected in 1999 on promises to stop sprawl went too far. But not everyone who opposes the new law is waiting until November.

Their blizzard of filings has overwhelmed court staff members. The chief clerk is searching for money to develop an electronic system to manage all the paper. Officials are struggling to execute a judge's requirement that 100,000 to 300,000 pages of documents be placed in an evidence depository for use by the plaintiffs. The presiding judge has ordered both sides to find common issues that can be argued together to save time.

Amid the flurry and stacks of mustard-yellow folders are three cases, filed under nondescript names: MHF, Locust Grove and Roland. The suits, over three slices of a 517-square-mile county, offer a glimpse behind the political theatrics of Loudoun's growth debate and show a range of interests stirred into action by the far-reaching regulations. What the files omit, in their carefully crafted language about constitutional rights, arbitrary environmental overlays and sewer lines, are the stories of the people who brought the suits.

There's Donald Virts, born on his family's farm near Loudoun's Quaker village of Waterford, a cattle rancher who's watched small operations like his die off for decades. There's George Calomiris, a Washington architect who snagged his historic weekend retreat an hour from Washington by scanning computerized real estate listings. And there's Ahmad Abdul-Baki, the scion of a prominent Palestinian family of bankers, who came to the United States to get a master of business administration degree from George Washington University in 1971 before launching a life, and a series of businesses, as an American.

Cattleman Kicked Twice

Her hoof -- a wrecking ball backed by 1,400 pounds of muscle and blood -- flew back and shattered Donald Virts's right knee. The purebred beef cow always had been a bit skittish but not dangerous. When Virts tried to separate her and her newborn calf from the rest of the herd, she seemed to aim for him.

"She meant to kick me. She was all the way by me and kicked me," Virts said.

He crawled 200 feet to the barn lot to get to his truck. Surgery and excruciating pain forced him off his feet for a couple of months and made him confront the long-standing financial problems of his cattle operation.

"I'm glad it happened," he said. "Instead of selling that cow for hamburger, I should have kept her here like a queen."

He decided to sell a handful of three-acre lots to pay off creditors. "I got out of debt," Virts said. "I couldn't do that now, not with the new zoning."

As Virts sees it, it's Loudoun County, with its restrictive new zoning rules, that has kicked him now.

The new rural zoning -- which covers a swath of western Loudoun more than five times the size of the District -- sharply reduces the number of homes that can be built per acre. The old rules allowed one house per three acres. Now, the county allows one home per 10, 20 or 50 acres, depending on location and whether homes are clustered to save open space.

County officials say Virts's interpretation is wrong. While the new rules cut the maximum number of houses allowed on Virts' 346-acre Meadow Hill Farm from 114 to 33, he can still sell lots of various sizes to buttress his finances in hard times, or to cash out, they said.

Officials added that while they shrank the size of potential subdivisions, they provided an important bonus in return: Landowners were given the right to launch a series of businesses, everything from nurseries and pet farms to upscale spas, without seeking special permission from the county.

Still, the idea that Virts, or others in Loudoun's tiny community of traditional farmers, would run a mud bath, or emu farm, or even a boutique vegetable operation is a laughable notion for some. "They are confusing the word 'farming' with the word 'gardening,' " said Virts's son Dennis.

Donald Virts bought the land more than 30 years ago from Arthur Godfrey, the ukulele-loving television pioneer, rancher and environmentalist.

Virts stayed with the land even as sinking commodities prices and rising land values ushered most county farmers out of agriculture.

He turned down big money for the farm in the late 1980s, before the recession and real estate crash, and kept farming through the 1990s, when Loudoun's population doubled and $1 million homes popped up in subdivisions on former farms. "The worst thing is, I didn't stop," he said

Then, in December, his wife, Mary Jane, the woman who made the work worth it, died after a struggle with cancer. "I was with her day and night," Virts said.

A month later, county officials voted to approve the new building restrictions. He deferred to his children on legal challenges.

"The kids are going to have to fight this. I got other things on my mind," Virts said. His son Dennis, who gave up farming to become a real estate broker several years ago, took the lead.

Donald Virts, who had retreated into the solitude of his drafty stone house, now is back to his fields. His knee still burns. Thieves stole 15 1,200-pound rolls of his hay. Heavy March snows collapsed his barn roof, sending splintered beams crashing down on his cattle, killing four and crushing the bones of others he had to finish off.

"It just got to where I couldn't shoot 'em anymore, and I had a neighbor come in," he said. Later, a shortage of large-animal veterinarians left Virts to perform a makeshift Caesarean on a cow carrying the farm's next generation.

And he's added a new element to his routine -- a mile drive from his farm to Mary Jane's grave.

The Wrong Target

When George Calomiris needs to get away from the zoning battles and the market studies and the schmoozing, he sets off from his 16th Street office, drives over the Potomac River, past the shiny vacant office buildings on the way to Dulles, up to Leesburg on a speedy toll road, then west to a farm called Locust Grove.

"Three days a week I'm out there on my tractor, feeding my cattle. It's cathartic. It's uncomplicated. It's a simpler life, and it beats the hell out of the rubbish I deal with in Washington, D.C.," Calomiris said.

As an architect, the idea of exposing the stones and oak log beams erected in his country home around 1800 had a deep allure.

So did the setting at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Nestled among pines, the home's red and green trim matches a big holly tree. Cows, sheep, goats and a donkey mill about in the pasture.Calomiris also was sure the property he bought in April 1995 would make a nice investment.

"The Greenway was coming," Calomiris said, referring to the toll road that opened five months after his purchase, helping bring rural western Loudoun within commuting distance of urban job centers.

Calomiris wasn't alone in recognizing the growth potential. That year, a few miles east of Locust Grove, builders began erecting the first of 1,100 homes planned for a development to the north, south and east of the town of Round Hill, population 500. The project came to symbolize the type of swift construction critics said was marring Loudoun's countryside.

"It was the fulcrum that lifted the whole movement," said Joe Maio, founder of the political action committee Voters to Stop Sprawl. From his home on six acres near the project, he helped engineer the 1999 landslide victories by growth-control advocates. The next year, the Sierra Club named the Round Hill development one of the worst pieces of suburban planning in the nation.

Loudoun officials say their new building restrictions are meant to prevent such projects from overwhelming the county's rural character. Calomiris's spread lies in a part of the county where he would need 30 acres to support more than one house. He has 21.

Like many landowners fighting the new law, he argues that county officials have unfairly slashed the development allowed on his property, sapping its value without compensation. He wants the law thrown out.

"I went from being able to build six additional houses someday -- when I'm 85 years old -- to zero . . . This isn't Russia, is it? You don't want people taking stuff away from you without saying 'please.' "

Calomiris doesn't limit his critique to county supervisors. He blasts his fellow travelers in the development world, who he says built unsightly homes and lifeless communities in Loudoun's countryside, and the "basically tacky people" who have rushed to embrace such "blight."

"I know I wouldn't do anything as horrible as has been done in Round Hill. I understand the negative reaction to that. It's ugly," Calomiris said. "They don't have to look tacky. You don't have to use that same pitched roof."

Calomiris argues that architects play too small a role -- or no role at all -- in many housing developments, and local governments do too little to induce developers to create well-designed communities.

The large houses on large lots in his own neighborhood are prime examples, he said. "You look around me and you got that Fairfax County look," he said.

In Loudoun, Calomiris said, officials aimed at the wrong target.

"They absconded with a portion of my estate because people around me had done such a lousy job of developing," he said.

Vowing to Be Different

Ahmad Abdul-Baki has been here before.

Last time, in Texas's boom-and-bust '80s, it was tanking oil prices and a fire sale of foreclosed properties that dashed his investment plans, he said. Now, it's Loudoun officials and their strict new building curbs that are the problem.

But this time, Abdul-Baki promises things will be different. "You learn from your past," he said.

After Loudoun's new lineup of slow-growth leaders was elected in November 1999, Abdul-Baki and his colleagues at Greenvest LC, went on a buying spree: On Nov. 30, Greenvest purchased 1,000 acres near Dulles International Airport. The following year, it picked up more than 1,400 acres in the same area.

While Loudoun supervisors painstakingly fashioned hundreds of pages of new building restrictions, Greenvest kept buying.

Between July 2001, when the supervisors approved a county plan that slashed the number of homes allowed in Loudoun, and January 2003, when they passed the zoning ordinance that actually enforced the cutback, Greenvest purchased more than a dozen additional parcels. Now, the company owns or has under contract 5,500 acres in Loudoun, company officials said, making Greenvest the county's biggest landowner.

While many Loudoun landowners feared the impact of the new regulations, executives at Greenvest saw an opportunity. The privately held company, which specializes in turning raw, undeveloped land into homesites, and a home-building company that executives also run, have combined revenue of about $100 million a year, Greenvest officials said.

"Our vision is long term," Abdul-Baki said. "We're not looking at this for tomorrow. Tomorrow is 15 or 20 years down the road."

The plan in Loudoun is simple enough: to be the indispensable supplier of home-building lots in the fast-growing and affluent county, selling as many as 1,000 sites per year over the next 15 to 20 years -- mostly near the airport, where company officials say growth belongs -- bringing in revenue of more than $1 billion. But the county's new law has brought that to a halt, at least for now, by limiting home building in the area because of what officials say is a lack of services.

Abdul-Baki acknowledges his plan's execution is certain to be far from simple.

"You have to allow for dips and changes that slow down that equation," he said. "Otherwise you're a fool."

Abdul-Baki knows about dips.

After graduating from business school and becoming a Wall Street banker in the 1970s, Abdul-Baki was drawn into what seemed like the limitless real estate opportunities gushing from such Texas oil centers as Houston. "In the 1980s, the 'what ifs' weren't a part of it," Abdul-Baki said.

Then came the crash.

"You've seen property devalued 90 percent overnight. What do you do? How do you cope with it?" Abdul-Baki said.

Abdul-Baki's early investors, many based in the Middle East, saw their hopes of a big payoff in the U.S. market dashed. Bankruptcy and ugly court battles followed.

"He had to start all over again, right from scratch, working from his home," said Wael Seifi, a Jordanian developer who worked for him.

He found a new frontier in Virginia, where he would try to benefit from the forces that sank him in Texas. This time, he'd be on the buyer's side, picking up foreclosed properties or other deals from Resolution Trust Corp. and various lenders.

"That's what got us started here," Abdul-Baki said. "When you buy things that are cheap, you can sell them for cheap, and you minimize risk."

Abdul-Baki met Jeffrey Sneider, a local developer, and they co-founded Greenvest, which went on to partner on some projects with Starwood Capital Group -- a Greenwich, Conn.-based investment company that specialized in collecting what the industry calls distressed properties and now has $7.5 billion in real estate assets.

As the Washington region grew in the 1990s, Greenvest expanded to feed the appetite for new homes, taking on projects in Montgomery, Prince George's, Prince William and Fairfax counties. The developers made big plans for Loudoun.

"I think in terms of a Reston or a Columbia," said Jim Duszynski, Greenvest's chief executive officer, adding that the company spent millions of dollars building water and sewer pipes that could connect to existing treatment facilities and could serve 32,000 new homes.

Abdul-Baki was named after his grandfather, an Arab nationalist and Palestinian leader who was exiled to the Seychelles islands by the British and later battled Israeli forces over Jerusalem. He appreciates the multicultural business he's built.

"I'm an Arab Muslim, and my partner is a Jew. We're both American," Abdul-Baki said. He said his work as a developer is about more than profit. "You are developing or building . . . a living community, which has challenges and history and which is amazing," he said.

Even before the flurry of lawsuits challenging Loudoun's new building restrictions, Greenvest and other developers had sued the county over rejected housing projects near the airport. One Greenvest case is before the Virginia Supreme Court.

Greenvest filed 22 suits, more than any other company. They seek to, among other things, overturn rules preventing developers from hooking homes to water and sewer lines, including the one the company built. Without them, even modest development can be impossible, the company argued in a representative case filed over a $2.86 million, 175-acre parcel west of Dulles called Roland.

The company officials also are pursuing their fight on the political front. Sneider is abehind-the-scenes organizer of opposition to the current supervisors, and company executives are important campaign donors. "We're in support of regime change," Duszynski said.

County officials have expressed little sympathy for Greenvest's predicament.

"Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you," said Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer). "When you're dealing with land speculators, you never know how it's going to turn out."

Abdul-Baki said he's ready. Texas taught him the importance of diversifying his holdings and funding projects with as much of his own capital as possible, which, he said, protects him from outside pressures.

Indeed, within about a month after slow-growth proponents were elected in Loudoun in 1999, Greenvest nabbed 1,000 acres beside Charles Town, W.Va., a city of 3,000 a few miles from Loudoun. The project, called Hunt Field, is a model of what Abdul-Baki said he hopes someday to create in Loudoun.

It also provides an alternate source of building lots -- and income -- while the Loudoun investments are held up by county officials. Greenvest paid about $5 million for the West Virginia property.

The 3,200 homesites approved in the development -- including 2,100 single-family lots ranging from a tenth to a quarter of an acre, as well as townhouses and condominiums -- will sell for about $175 million, the company says.

"I have the ability to sit and wait and wait and take my time," Abdul-Baki said. "Ten years, hopefully, is the first of 50 more years of growth here."


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