Residents are once again voicing opposition to a planned 30-home subdivision in the rural village of St. Louis. This time, they’re calling for the state to impose harsher penalties on the developer for wetlands the project impacted.
In late summer 2019, residents living in and around the village of St. Louis began speaking out against developer Jack Andrews’ plans to build a 30-single-family-home subdivision along Snake Hill Road called Middleburg Preserve, adjacent to the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Andrews’s development company, Mojax, owns four parcels in the village totaling about 19.5 acres.
Project opponents said the proposed drilling of 27 wells would threaten their water supplies and construction might disturb the dozens of unmarked graves on the property.
Last year’s outcry led to a public complaint with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality claiming that Mojax had violated state regulations surrounding land clearing activities.
Upon investigating, the department in June 2019 found that Mojax had impacted 0.57 acres of wetland. The department also found that Mojax did not obtain a Virginia Water Protection Permit to legally discard dirt from well drilling activities into surrounding surface waters.
The state issued a consent order between Mojax and the State Water Control Board, which went into effect in January, mandating Mojax pay a $27,500 fee and purchase wetland credits for the unpermitted impacts to the forested wetland; fill, grade and stabilize a ditch to prevent sediment from moving downstream to adjacent surface waters; plant five overstory trees, ten understory trees and 15 small shrubs in the forested wetland revegetation area; and mulch disturbed areas.
Mojax was required to pay the fine by Feb. 9 and prove to the state it had purchased the wetland credits by March 10. It is required to complete the plantings this month.
But some area residents aren’t content with those remedial mandates. On March 23, the Unison Preservation Society wrote a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality expressing its objection to the order’s conditions.
According to Tara Connell, the society’s president, board members feel the penalties don’t correspond with the damage Mojax caused and won’t deter Mojax from infringing upon more wetlands. Instead, Connell said the society feels the state should impose a fine that impacts the cost of doing business and deters other developers from impacting wetlands in rural Loudoun.
“$27,000 is pocket change [to developers],” Connell said, adding that the area around Middleburg Preserve should be returned to as close to its original state as possible. “It’s such a blatant mishandling of what’s going on.”
The society is asking the state to impose a new consent order with “serious, deserved fines and remediation requirements, ones that make whole the community of St. Louis and prove to Western Loudoun that [the department] mean[s] business.”
Connell said it’s important for the preservation society, and other area community organizations, to remain vigilant when it comes to protecting Loudoun’s rural environment. She said that what happens in St. Louis could happen to other villages.
“It is absolutely crucial that every single one of us stand up for every single other village,” she said.
State legislators are also getting involved. Del. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10) wrote a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality on April 1 urging the state to “pursue a stricter penalty and require Mojax to address the damage it has caused.” Gooditis noted that the village is an historic African American community that was founded in 1881 by emancipated slaves.
“There is a history of environmental violence against communities of color in this country and we must ensure Virginia does not repeat past mistakes,” she wrote, pointing out that Gov. Ralph Northam last month signed a bill into law creating the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice to “provide recommendations intended to protect vulnerable communities from disproportionate impacts of pollution,” according to the legislation’s language.
Friends of St. Louis also wrote a letter to the state urging it to extend the April 2 public comment period on the consent order, which did not happen.
Job Woodill, the president of the civic association, said its members would like to see the state issue Mojax penalties that force it into compliance and slow the project down. He said the $27,500 fine is simply the cost of doing business as a developer.
“They did not go hard on them,” Woodill said. “These fines are supposed to be a deterrent.”
Woodill said the next logical step for Friends of St. Louis would be to take legal action, since “culpability is there.” But, he said, the organization’s members aren’t thinking about forging ahead with that just yet, and generally don’t want to go down that route.
“We’re not litigious, we don’t want to sue people,” Woodill said. “That’s the last thing we want to do.”
Neither Andrews nor his business partners responded to emails or calls concerning the order or the subdivision project as a whole.