Loudoun Now: Buffington, Walbridge Debate Rural Preservation Efforts in Blue Ridge District
By Patrick Szabo
Between bits of controversy surrounding county plans to preserve the rural west and some back-and-forth on campaign contributions, Blue Ridge District residents this week learned a good deal about their incumbent supervisor and his opponent in next month’s election.
Close to 100 western Loudoun residents filed into the Town of Purcellville’s Bush Tabernacle on Thursday night not to roller skate, but to hear from incumbent Republican Tony Buffington and Democratic challenger Tia Walbridge about their views on where the county, and specifically the Blue Ridge District, stands and should be heading following the adoption of a new comprehensive plan for the county. Moderated byLoudoun Now, theLoudoun Times-Mirrorand the Coalition of Loudoun Towns, the debate produced an hour-and-a-half discussion that touched on transfer of development rights programs, Leesburg’s Joint Land Management Area, development outside Purcellville and the source and amount of campaign contributions the candidates have collected.
Now a little more than three months since the Board of Supervisors voted to adopt the county’s new comprehensive plan, the candidates were asked what they felt the new plan got right and wrong.
Buffington said that, while he and his fellow supervisors preserved the rural west in part by protecting the ridgelines in nearly all of the rural policy area, he said it was a mistake for a majority of his colleagues to vote to transfer about one square mile of land from the county’s Rural Policy Area to the Transition Policy Area.
Walbridge agreed with Buffington on what the plan got right but said it was wrong to adopt the plan without including details on a transfer of development rights program—a program that would allow landowners to sell credits from rural to urban areas, which would protectrural land from development by transferring it to areas where county leaders want higher-density development to occur.“It was such a blow to western Loudoun [to not include that detail in the plan],” she said.
Later in the debate, Walbridge additionally pointed out that there are only two lines in the comprehensive plan mentioning such a program, which, she argued, doesn’t meet the legal standard needed for the next board to implement the program as they revise the county’s zoning ordinance. She said state law requires the plan to identify the sending and receiving zones for the credits.
Buffington refuted Walbridge’s claims, saying that County Attorney Leo Rogers informed the Board of Supervisors that a simple reference to the transfer of development rights program would give the county enough legal ground to stand on to implement and fund such a program. “The county attorney of Loudoun County disagrees with Tia Walbridge on this,” he said.
Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk at one point took the mic to ask Buffington why the Board of Supervisors voted in June to reverse decades-old policies that call for the town to serve the surrounding Joint Land Management Area with water and sewer service and instead designate Loudoun Water to provide utilities there.
Buffington said that, while he did vote to do that, he said the vote was taken quickly in an effort to keep developers, who, according toVice Chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn),felt bullied by the town, from walking away from their plans to invest in Loudoun. He also said there was language added in that allows developers in the JLMA to use Leesburg utilities if they choose to do so. Buffington said supervisors feared that about a billion dollars in investments was about to pull out.
Walbridge said she was worried about the precedent the vote set for other Loudoun towns and that the Board of Supervisors pulled the rug out from under the Town of Leesburg in its vote.
Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser also told the candidates that the Warner family has submitted plans to the county to develop the 131-acre Warner Brook property just north of town—a property the Purcellville Town Council voted last October not to annex.Fraser asked what they would do to block developers there from constructing a road connecting the new development with the Wright Farm neighborhood.
Walbridge said that tightening the zoning ordinance would be an important action to take, while Buffington said he’s already worked with the county staff to ensure that they’re working with the applicant to “slow things down.”
Both candidates were also questioned on the source—and influence—of campaign contributions.
Walbridge was asked about a $25,000 contribution she received from Del. John Bell (D-87), who has received nearly $400,000 from real estate and development interests.
Initially claiming that the contribution wasn’t that high, but later told that it was, Walbridge said that Bell has been her mentor since she decided to run for office and that even if some of the money received from Bell was derived from developers, it wouldn’t change her views on rural preservation.
Buffington said it was “very interesting” that Bell, who’s also battling for a seat in the State Senate, would give Walbridge such a large donation. While claiming that he wasn’t accusing his opponent’s supporters of underhandedness, he said that sometimes developers use candidates as conduits to pass their money through to get it into the intended hands.
Buffington was also asked about the $50,000 in donations he’s received from real estate and construction firms. To that, he said he received “a lot of money” from developers in his previous campaign, but that he didn’t promise them anything in accepting it. He noted that he has a four-year voting record for residents to reference. “Look at my record,” he told the crowd.
Walbridge, a board member of the Loudoun County Farm Bureau, was additionally asked about the details of her Round Hill-area sheep farm, as critics have questioned whether she actually worked as a farmer. She described her farming operation as one in which she raises Dorset sheep, processes meat to sell to local restaurants and sells ewes, among other jobs.
On the topic of money, the candidates were also asked about current board’s vote to raise the compensation of the next board by 62 percent. Beginning next term, supervisors will be paid $66,826 annually.
Buffington, who approved the raise along with other Republican board members, said that supervisors should make enough money to focus on the job full time if they wish and that their salaries should be high enough to allow them to live in Loudoun County, pointing to his need to support his two kids and his girlfriend’s four kids.
Walbridge said that she wouldn’t vote for a supervisor pay raise until county employee salaries were on par with that of surrounding jurisdictions, noting that 30 percent of Loudoun teachers live outside the county.
When asked about the most urgent challenges they feel the county is faced with and how they would attack it, Buffington and Walbridge agreed that preserving western Loudoun by tightening the county’s zoning rules was key.
Buffington also mentioned that the county needs to continue finding ways to reduce traffic congestion. He said it’s already doing so and that it will spend $1.2 billion on road projects over the next six years to make that happen. “We absolutely have to continue doing that—relief is coming,” he said.
Walbridge said the county needs to put conservation programs in place to deal with the “breakneck pace of growth” it’s experienced—three times the national average over the past five years.
She said voters have “a very clear choice” come Nov. 5—vote for someone who has made “empty promises” or elect someone who understands western Loudoun’s needs. “I have the boots on the ground experience and the policy knowledge,” she said.
Buffington said he would continue listening to the public, leading on the Board of Supervisors and delivering results. “I’m going to continue to do those things,” he said.