The Loudoun GOP’s two masters

My source deep within the labyrinthine bowels of 1 Harrison Street (“Shallow Throat”) hints that Chairman of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors Scott York may already be finding it difficult to keep his all-Republican very-developer-friendly board in line with the program he was tasked with by the state and national Republican Party.

The parish church of Scott York's political mentor, the Vicar of Bray (you can look it up)

A bit of context: Virginia in general, and Loudoun County in particular, were targeted by the national GOP in the 2011 off-year election as a top priority. The party was shaken by losing the state and Loudoun in 2008—both went for Obama in the presidential election—and mounted a major effort to retake them. On election day this past fall, paid Republican poll workers, some brought in from as far away as Virginia Beach, covered every Loudoun polling place. Second only to the huge influx of developer money to Loudoun’s GOP candidates was a significant chunk of cash from the state party, plus help and advice from national GOP politicos. It was an extraordinary amount of interest in a local race from a national and state party machine.

Former Republican former independent and now Republican Scott York, Loudoun County’s very own Vicar of Bray, re-embraced the party fold in 2011 after two terms as a smart-growth renegade, during which time he won a broad following of Democrats, Republicans, and independents in the county by bucking the developer-run Loudoun County Republican Committee. But the with the shifting of the winds again, York promptly put behind him all of his previous independent stands and is now back in the good graces of GOP officialdom.

Several sources say that York was told by the big boys at Party HQ that his new all-Republican Loudoun board needs to lay low on any controversial moves—until after this fall’s election—to avoid queering the party’s chances in the 2012 presidential and U.S. Senate contests.

Above all, the idea is to avoid a repeat of the Republicans’ 2007 fiasco, in which voter anger at the outrageous and blatant pro-developer agenda of the 2003–2007 board’s Republican majority provoked an overwhelming voter backlash. York himself echoed this when he told the Washington Post after his re-election this past November:

It’s our turn to govern, but we have to be cautious of how we go through it. If we don’t do it right we’ll be out in four years.

But it already looks as if the new board members simply can’t help themselves: even waiting until November to begin their developer giveaways is proving just too much of a strain.

For instance:

• On a 9–0 vote, the board last month approved a motion of Intent to Amend the countywide Zoning Ordinance so that commercial development which currently requires a special exception will be automatically permitted. Special exceptions require hearings and a chance for citizen input. The proposed changes would eliminate that opportunity. Special exception uses under the current Zoning Ordinance include gas stations and hotels in Rural Commercial zoned areas; cell phone towers and transmission towers in AR-1 and AR-2 zoned areas (most of the rest of Western Loudoun); and big box stores in areas of the county zoned for retail.

Not a word was hinted about such an intent to change the Zoning Ordinance during the election. Geary Higgins (“the stinkbug slayer”), R-Catoctin, in fact told Leesburg Today in an interview after the election:

I’ve said I have no desire to change the zoning. That’s off the table.

Yes, it was off the table until the first couple of meetings of the new board, when Higgins joined the 9–0 unanimous vote to change the zoning.

• In a purge that would make Stalin proud, the board has begun systematically removing all Democrats, independent experts, and preservation and environmental advocates from key commissions and boards. The 2007–2011 board of supervisors did a fair job of including representatives of all interested parties on these commissions; there was a bipartisan mix and a significant number of truly independent experts. The new makeup of these panels is shaping up to be almost exclusively developers, big campaign contributors, and local Republican Party functionaries. Not a single Democrat was named, for example, to the new much ballyhooed Government Reform commission. (In a subsequent post I’ll have more on this.)

• In what was plainly a payback to the real estate and developer industry which put them in office, the board voted 8–1 to kill the illegal-sign removal program. Yes, this will look like small potatoes compared to everything else the board is planning to do to throw the county open to more ugliness and helter-skelter development, but it was extraordinarily telling. The pathetically lame excuses offered by the board to justify this move speak for themselves. And the effect of illegal signs is not trivial; take a drive through scenic  Fairfax if you doubt that. The visual blight and ugliness and general sense of commercial tawdriness it creates is a gift to one business sector only: the bottom feeders who have no stake in the future of the county. The businesses that want to build a sustainable economic commercial base, including rural enterprises, are the ones who are directly damaged by this blight of illegal roadside trash.

• By a 9–0 vote and virtually no public notice or debate (is there a pattern emerging here?) the board approved an Intent to Amend the Facilities Standards Manual, the comprehensive, detailed guide developers must follow in preparing site plans and other steps in the development process. At the same time, they moved to purge (see above) the few citizen representatives on the FSM Review Board who are not directly beholden to the development industry. This is a potentially huge backdoor way to gut the effect and intent of the Zoning Ordinance and Comprehensive Plan, without having to take those elephants on directly.

• Shallow Throat reports that not content with all of this, though, the board has ordered staff on the Zoning Department to prepare a motion of Intent to Amend the Zoning Ordinance and to revive the much-abused “ZORC,” the Zoning Ordinance Review Committee, which had been the development industry’s favorite way to chip away at the countywide zoning plan. We can only hope this rumor is incorrect, but it appears to be well-sourced. This would be the first step to throw open the entire Zoning Ordinance yet again to potentially wholesale revision, something that the last board wisely declined to do, arguing that we have a settled plan and we should stick to it, despite its flaws.

As I said, the new board can’t seem to help themselves.

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