Growing pains
Loudoun’s burgeoning population attracts development, strains resources
by Joan Hennessy
for Virginia Business
June 2007
One of the most active commercial real estate developers in the Washington, D.C., area, Buchanan Partners is known for pioneering projects in emerging markets — including Loudoun County. But as recently as 2003, the vast area around Washington Dulles International Airport gave company officials pause. “They weren’t sold on whether there was a market for the existing zoning,” says Nicole Morrill, vice president of project management for Maryland-based Buchanan Partners.
Today, though, Buchanan Partners is building Arcola Center, a mammoth mixed-use development in what has become the epicenter of change in one of the fastest-growing and affluent counties in the nation.
The project, located along the Route 50 corridor near the Dulles airport property, is expected to cost up to $1 billion over 20 years. It will include 2.1 million square feet of office and commercial space, two to three hotels, and plenty of space for new town homes, condominiums and apartments.
The company’s change of heart came after efforts to improve the Dulles corridor impressed the company’s partners. “The more they learned about what was going on with the Route 50 corridor, the more they realized this is a true opportunity.” says Morrill.
Buchanan Partners isn’t the only convert.
Bordered by Fairfax County on one side and the Potomac River on the other, Loudoun has long been a suburban haven of wineries, rolling hills and horse farms. But it is also the final outpost of the immediate Washington area. And as such, its population and development have grown by leaps and bounds.
In the early 1990s, 90,000 residents called Loudoun home. The population is about 270,000 now. And in March, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Loudoun as the fourth fastest-growing county in the nation, with a population growth of 58 percent from 2000 to 2006.
In 2005, the county’s median household income, $98,483, was the highest in the U.S., more than double the national average of $46,326. Roughly 56 percent of Loudoun residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 27 percent nationally.
Yet for all of that, to live in Northern Virginia is to watch Loudoun grow in painful adolescent spurts. There are momentous milestones — such as the opening of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm campus, a biomedical research center that currently has 149 employees and an additional 83 contractors. But there are also episodes of angst and embarrassment, perhaps the most troubling of which is an FBI investigation of the county’s $13.5 million purchase of a piece of property in 2004. A former county supervisor represented the seller and earned a commission on the deal.
On a more mundane level, overloaded classrooms and overburdened roads are part of life. Earlier this year, angry parents complained after County Administrator Kirby Bowers proposed a delay in some school construction plans. “I had to see what we could afford,” says Bowers.
Loudoun has been the setting of a contentious political tug of war between pro-growth and slow-growth groups. “It’s out-of-control growth. It’s completely turbo charged,” observes Andrea McGimsey, who recently stepped down as director of the Campaign for Loudoun’s Future, which describes itself as an advocate for “reasonable growth” in the county. “We’re absolutely not anti-growth,” says McGimsey.
She moved to Loudoun in 2001. Then an AOL employee, her commute from Ashburn to the online service’s headquarters in Dulles was six minutes. “It went to 21 minutes in three years,” she says. “I’m a businesswoman. This is a big business issue. You need infrastructure that works well for business to work well.”

The Loudoun magnet
The strains caused by rapid growth have had an effect on some projects. Three years ago developers met objections when they unveiled plans for One Loudoun, a town center with 2,500 homes at Route 7 and Loudoun County Parkway. Plans now have been scaled back to 1,040 town homes, condominiums and single-family homes. “We worked with the county to come up with a program that was agreeable,” says Lauri Payson, director of marketing for Miller and Smith, a McLean-based residential developer involved in the project.
The county must offset its population growth with more tax revenue-producing businesses, explains Lori Waters, a Loudoun supervisor and chairman of the economic development committee. Seventy-five percent of the county’s $1.38 billion budget goes toward education, notes Waters.
So when a family moves in, there’s an impact. “If they have a $500,000 house, they pay $5,000 in taxes,” she points out. But the addition of one child to the school system costs $13,000 per year. And the county opened five new schools during the 2005-06 school year. “We have a young population,” says Waters. “Our county is a great place to raise families. We have a high birth rate. It requires a lot of money.”
Loudoun’s leaders clearly want more business. They hope Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm campus will be a magnet. “The Howard Hughes center is phenomenal from a bio-science perspective,” says Robyn Bailey, manager of business infrastructure for the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development. “That will be a great catalyst.”
One Loudoun, which will include the World Trade Center, Dulles Airport, could be another business magnet. The trade center will be a regional member of the World Trade Centers Association, a global trade organization promoting two-way trade. “It’s harder and harder to find land closer in [to Washington],” observes Payson of Miller and Smith. “With the proximity to Dulles airport, the location of Howard Hughes directly across the street, everything that needed to be there was there.”
Town centers such as One Loudoun and Arcola are among “smart growth” initiatives aimed at creating communities where people can live and work. But most households have two incomes, and couples generally don’t work at the same place. “You’re really lucky if you can both find jobs in the same area,” says McGimsey, the community activist.
Even as Morrill of Buchanan Partners plans the Arcola Center, she acknowledges that commuting is a fact of life for many couples. The project’s plans include a park-and-ride with 200 spaces. There also are plans to improve Route 50 and other area roads.
The Metro Rail will stretch to Dulles and beyond by 2012, bringing some relief to traffic congestion. But multiple-tiered solutions are needed, says Bowers, the county administrator. That means reconsidering other travel options, including bikeways. “It would be nice to work toward the goal that you wake up and have a choice as to whether to take your car to work or not.”
County officials expect help from a transportation bill recently passed by the General Assembly. “The estimates that were put together showed Loudoun County could expect as much as $40 million a year,” says Terrie Laycock, interim director of transportation for Loudoun. She adds that the Board of Supervisors will have to sort out priorities for the funds.
In addition, projects valued at more than $71 million are slated for The Greenway, a road privately owned by the Toll Road Investors Partnership II. Developers also have agreed to widen and improve roads around planned town centers. For example, developers of East Gate, a center off Route 50 near Dulles, plan to add $17.5 million in public roadways.
Whether those changes come soon enough for residents caught in gridlock is another question.
The politics
As the county juggles the demands of change, the FBI is examining how the county has handled land deals. No charges have been filed. Announcement of the investigation in February followed a series of stories in The Washington Post suggesting close ties between some Loudoun officials and developers. “They [the FBI] are still doing interviews. Everybody is complying and helping in any way they can,” says Waters.
The stories prompted soul searching. Waters and another supervisor proposed a new ethics and disclosure policy. “We disclose what types of discussions we’ve had about pending rezoning. There’s more light shown on the process and the relationships in place,” she says.
The investigation isn’t the only reason Loudoun politics worry business leaders, however. Loudoun is known for political shifts — and a populace that suffers no fools. “From a business standpoint, the dramatic shifts every four years in political leadership … that’s a challenge,” says Mindy Williams, immediate past chairman of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. “Is [Loudoun] open for business or is it not?”
Yet Bailey, of the economic development department, sees an advantage in having a more-involved community. “There is passion,” she says. “A lot of communities don’t have that.