Supersizing: It can happen here

Many longtime residents of Loudoun County post signs in their yards that proclaim "Don't Supersize Loudoun!" and The Campaign for Loudoun's Future is trying to prevent precisely that.

It may be too late. What was once a rural county an hour's drive from Washington, DC, is now a sprawling urban community overwhelmed by traffic, crime and all the other problems that come from urbanization.

When Amy and I moved to the Washington area in 1981 Loudoun County reminded me of Floyd -- a haven of country quiet just an hour's drive from the city. But the quiet was short lived. Land speculators had already moved in, gobbling up family farms and laying out plans for lavish developments of country homes.

Some say the boom started when America On-Line decided to move its headquarters from Vienna to Loudoun County and spurred creation of a "technology corridor" along U.S. 50. Leesburg, the sleepy county seat, became just another suburban monument to urban sprawl -- an endless collection of chain restaurants and shopping malls. In a few years Loudoun went from reminding me of Floyd to become a supersized clone of the Christiansburg-to-Blacksburg strip of shopping malls, car dealerships and neon signs.

Many longtime residents of Loudoun County post signs in their yards that proclaim "Don’t Supersize Loudoun!" and The Campaign for Loudoun’s Future is trying to prevent precisely that.

It may be too late. What was once a rural county an hour’s drive from Washington, DC, is now a sprawling urban community overwhelmed by traffic, crime and all the other problems that come from urbanization.

When Amy and I moved to the Washington area in 1981 Loudoun County reminded me of Floyd — a haven of country quiet just an hour’s drive from the city. But the quiet was short lived. Land speculators had already moved in, gobbling up family farms and laying out plans for lavish developments of country homes.

Some say the boom started when America On-Line decided to move its headquarters from Vienna to Loudoun County and spurred creation of a "technology corridor" along U.S. 50. Leesburg, the sleepy county seat, became just another suburban monument to urban sprawl — an endless collection of chain restaurants and shopping malls. In a few years Loudoun went from reminding me of Floyd to become a supersized clone of the Christiansburg-to-Blacksburg strip of shopping malls, car dealerships and neon signs.

Now the big money speculators are developing a "planned community" of 90,000 along U.S. 50, a new city, built from scratch, that would be larger than Manassas or Fredrick, Maryland — two more examples of what can happen when growth overcomes common sense.

The dangers of such sprawl are so great that even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues dire warnings like this:

In Northern Virginia, development is expanding beyond the current service areas of public water supplies provided by the Potomac River. Specifically, Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County’s population has increased by nearly 150 percent from 57,000 in 1980 to nearly 140,000 today, with the landscape changing from rural to suburban. Ground water is being utilized to support the uncontrolled growth. Yet, no assessment has been conducted on groundwater availability and how aquifers are being impacted by suburban sprawl.

In its path, sprawl consumes thousands of acres of forests and farmland, woodlands and wetlands. It requires government to spend millions extra to build new schools, streets and water and sewer lines. In its wake, sprawl leaves boarded up houses, vacant storefronts, closed businesses, abandoned and often contaminated industrial sites, and traffic congestion stretching miles from urban centers. There are over 700,000 kilometers of roads connecting urban areas within the Mid-Atlantic region!  As a result, we suffer from increased traffic congestion, longer commutes, increased dependence on fossil fuels, crowded schools, worsening air and water pollution, threatened surface and ground water supplies, lost open space and wetlands, increased flooding, destroyed wildlife habitat, higher taxes, and dying city centers.

Moreover, sprawl is creating a hidden debt of unfunded infrastructure and services, social dysfunction, urban decay and environmental degradation. Despite the fact that Prince William County, Va., in metropolitan Washington, DC, has the highest property tax rate in the state of Virginia, the cost of providing services to new developments is so high, the county is experiencing a $1,688 shortfall for every new house built.

Perhaps more important is the loss of community: People visiting with one another on front porches; neighbors helping neighbors; everyone keeping an eye on each other’s children. This simply cannot happen on 5 acre lots where people live for years without ever knowing their neighbors!

Now we are running out of greener pastures and many Americans consider urban sprawl to be the fastest growing threat to their local environment and quality of life. They are starting to question the wisdom of growing faster than infrastructures can support or service. They are starting to recognize that decades of road building have yet to  and may never  alleviate traffic congestion. Some communities that once welcomed development with open arms now consider the cost of lost farm land not worth the benefits of a new strip mall.

Can it happen in Floyd? Yes. Will it happen? Probably, unless common sense overcomes greed. The warning signs are here: Overpriced, gated communities like Roanoke developer Jim Woltz’s Twin Falls, local speculators who plaster their walls with planned subdivisions and Realtors from Roanoke and the New River Valley who talk about opening new offices in Floyd to capitalize on the coming boom.

Some look warily at the construction underway in Floyd right now, some of it part of the "downtown revialization" project, and wonder if all the work is good or bad. Time will tell. Restoring the beauty of the town’s storefronts is a good idea. So is converting the old Farmer’s Grocery store into a useful property and building a new hotel with local themes.

But visitors approaching Floyd from Roanoke see not the beauty of a rustic country community but the neon signs of three chain stores as they enter the town on U.S. 221. Those driving in from Christiansburg encounter yet another neon sign for a discount chain store on Rte. 8.  Each month, the county supervisors hide behind closed doors to discuss what concessions are needed to try and fill the mostly-unused industrial park.

Yes, the signs are here and speaking of signs, the first one you see when you enter Floyd County from the south on U.S. 221 is one of those state signs that proclaims "Entering Virginia’s Technology Corridor."  I first saw one of those signs in 1981 along U.S. 50 West of Washington — not far from the site where America On-Line built its massive headquarters and started the "boom" that threatens to destroy Loudoun County.

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10 Responses

  1. Rick, before you and Carol get into a public game of one upmanship here let me offer an observation. Then perhaps the two of you can settle your differences over lunch.

    Rick, I believe you were overly-defensive in your response. You obviously believe Floyd is a business opportunity. That is evident in the tone of your response to Mr. Thompson’s writing. Sometimes there is a danger is defending yourself when there might not be anything to defend yourself for. It was suggested you are cashing in on a business opportunity. If that is a noble effort in your opinion then why the need to defend it?

    With that said let me add that I happen to agree with Carol that Floyd has more than enough Realtors to go around but this is a free market society so anyone is welcome to jump into the pool.

    I also believe that those who see economic opportunity in Floyd miss the point. Floyd is a special place with a known lifestyle. The desire to change that lifestyle threatens all of us. Floyd will never have an economic base to support those who chose to move here for other reasons. If such a base were to develop it would destroy the very thing that makes Floyd a desireable place to live.

    A recent county survey shows most who move here are older and have made their nest egg somewhere else. They don’t need business incubators and marketing seminars and lessons on how to make money. They did that and now they want a quiet place to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

    What you and others propose threatens that quality of life. I know a number of Floyd Countians who left to seek their fortunes elsewhere and then returned to enjoy the benefits of those efforts and I see nothing wrong with that. Rather than try and turn Floyd County into your idea of utopia why not let things evolve naturally?

    In my opinion the county is already overrun by transplanted experts who want to help us local yokels find a better life. Perhaps we would all be better off if some of the experts realized that we have already found the secret to that life. That’s why we’re here.

  2. I agree with virtually everything said but c’mon, 5 acre lots where nobody knows their neighbors? Where does this happen in SW Virginia? There are plenty of 5+ acre lots here in Franklin County and folks still manage to get to know one another. I’m in the middle of 128 acres here and I know all of the old timers and newcomers whom I count as my neighbors. I may be more gregarious than most but I’m not so sure, we get our fair share of neighbors visiting also.

    There is an interesting book called the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell that deals with how large a homogenous community can grow before it ceases to be a singular community, where everyone knows one another by first name, supports eachother, and such. It’s something like 150. Beyond that “cliques” form and the community can’t act together as a cohesive unit. That number has indirectly been honored in various organizations ranging from the Amish to the U.S. Military. When the Amish population in a community exceeds 150, they create a new community and divide the population. It might be that to restore a sense of community, forward thinking developers could somehow work with that social circle limitation and design planned communities that might reverse the progress of our big box store economy?

    Sean

  3. Hi Doug, I just wanted to thank you for the link to my web site although you kind of lost me on the bizarre leap of logic that appears to connect my moving to Floyd with urban sprawl in your previous home in Northern Virginia. Fortunately, folks will be able to read my web site and learn that I’m not a developer and I don’t have any secret plan to pave over paradise. I’m just another guy that loves Floyd and wants a nice place to live with his family and make a decent living pursuing my profession. That’s no different from you or Fred, Colleen, Rob, Julie, Ed, Bernie, David, Chris, Mike, Sally, Jack, Woody, Steve… the list goes on to include over half of the population of Floyd County (from your previous post quoting figures from the last census). I’m not really looking to “cash in” on any kind of “boom”; I just want to continue providing a service to people who wish to buy or sell real estate in the New River Valley while living in a beautiful area with some really nice folks. Oh, and for those of you who might not be as familiar with our area: agencies, organizations and reference sources include Floyd in the “New River Valley”, thus you don’t “move to Floyd from the New River Valley”. As you should know, Floyd was part of Montgomery County until 1831. I’m not a native of the New River Valley myself; I just came here twenty years ago and fell in love with this part of my home state. Even after knocking around Montgomery, Giles, Pulaski, Floyd and Carroll for twenty years, I would never presume to appoint myself as the arbiter of what’s the “local way” or not the “local way” anywhere in the NRV. I see communities as living organisms and as such they will grow and evolve in any number of ways based on their resources (both “natural” and “human”), historical trends, incoming influences and the larger social and economic fabric of which they are a part. While I’m an ardent proponent of good planning, environmental protection and protection of individual rights, I am just a small part of the overall mechanism. Like you, I love Floyd and its many faces and I hope to see it evolve into the best place that it can be without destroying what is already here. I’m also not one to try to slam the door behind me and I hope that I will always be as welcoming and hospitable as the many friends that I’ve made so far. It’s nice to be able to enjoy a cup of coffee or a fine meal, talk to friendly folks or listen to great music. I would like to see a future where more of Floyd’s young people find it a great place to settle and raise a family, where small independent businesses thrive and where workers, artists and professional musicians can make a decent living while contributing to the quality of our lives. What’s so nefarious about that? I’m really a pretty nice guy once you get to know me!

  4. I think holding up AOL-sized invasions as a possible risk to Floyd’s future is not a realistic scale of threat, as we lack the numbers for such an employer. And if we are to have more jobs in the county, information-related small-scale enterprises (like Citizens for instance) is to be feared far less than those that transfer their products by truck and use copious amounts of water and take up a large real-estate and aesthetic footprint.

    I’d hope we wouldn’t make “technology corridor” a boogie-man term that elicits immediate revulsion. We should look at any potential low-impact industry on a case by case basis. And very carefully. And before the papers are signed.

  5. In Virginia’s eyes, "technology corridor" also means technology manufacturing and the toxic chemicals produced by just such manufacturing have already contaminated the groundwater in areas that embraced the techno-boom.

    You can’t have it both ways. If you want a peaceful, idyllic mountain community you need to let many of the employers go elsewhere. If you want to fill that industrial park then you might as well kiss your quality of life goodbye.

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