The residents and neighbors of the village of St. Louis packed into the Loudoun County boardroom Wednesdayto plead with supervisors to do more to protect their community from a developer’s plans.
Mojax LLC, a firm headed by developer Jack Andrews, has subdivided land near St. Louis for 27 homes—a development called “Middleburg Preserve” that residents say will have devastating effects on their already-poor water quality. And with the development so far by-right, meaning it requires only routine permits and no vote from the county board, supervisors so far have taken no concrete action to stop it.
A project to downzone other land around the village to prevent future development does not include the Mojax property—an action that under Virginia law could easily lead to a lawsuit after stripping a property owner of the right to develop a property, especially where development work has already begun.
Lifelong St. Louis resident Marcus Howard asked supervisors during the June 9 public hearing on that rezoning proposal to “look within yourself” as they go through the rezoning work.
“I live in the house that my grandmother built in 1959 on land that was deeded to her by her uncle, who was born in 1862 a slave,” Howard said. “I can count my family lineage six generations right in St. Louis.”
The village dates to at least the 1800s, founded by formerly enslaved people. Howard said according to the U.S. Census, it was once the largest Black community in Loudoun. And he said the development threat now is a very emotional issue for him, his family, and the village.
“There’s a cemetery in the midst of this Middleburg Preserve. Bodies of enslaved people are interred there. Sons and daughters of slaves are interred there. Members of our family are interred there,” Howard said. “They say they don’t know exactly how many bodies that may be there, so when I see the bulldozers go in and out, and the trucks shoveling dirt from side to side, thoughts in my mind wonder, what’s going on? We don’t know. All we can do is hope and pray that those people who lived their lives in indignity can at least rest with dignity.”
Residents told supervisors that even before the development was proposed, their wells have often ran low, or yielded stinking, undrinkable water. Catherine Holmes was one of several who told supervisors she had already had to drill a new well on her property because the old one ran dry.
“I remember waiting for a few good rainy days to have enough water to hand wash the dishes, and also just to flush the toilet,” Holmes said.
“We pay taxes on the land we own, but we’re scared to cook with it and drink the water from our wells with filtration systems that are only a Band-Aid on the severe problem.”
“The first well I had, I would pray that it was raining,” said John Holmes, who said he has bored two wells since he’s been living in his home, which was his great-grandparents’ house. “No water whatsoever. If it don’t rain for about two or three weeks, we don’t have no water.”
And Alyn Beauchamp, who said she lives near the subdivision, told supervisors that since well drilling has resumed, her water has developed a hydrogen sulfide smell.
People from outside the village and across rural Loudoun also rallied. Marvin Watts, of Bluemont, likened the project to historic massacres of Black communities such as in Tulsa, OK, in 1921.
“Legal circumstances not withstanding, Mojax is just one more white capitalist predator intent on compromising or obliterating our historic Black community of St. Louis. This aggression must be resisted, defeated,” Watts said.
Daniel Murphy of Middleburg said the development would overwhelm and destroy the community.
“By privileging one developer’s interests over 90 resident families’ history, you will overwhelm the identity, the story this community has built over generations,” Murphy said.
At one time, supervisors had a provisional deal worked out to buy the land, offering to pay the Mojax developers cash and swap the Aldie Tavern property—itself a site of controversy when the county sought to build a fire station on the property, plans which have since been dropped—for the property near St. Louis. Under protest from the Aldie community, supervisors abandoned that deal, leaving St. Louis residents back where they started.
Supervisors are now working to sell the Aldie Tavern land; the Mojax developers have put in the highest bid for it, although state law does not require supervisors to accept the highest bid for real estate sales.
County Attorney Leo Rogers has warned supervisors against outright purchasing the land near St. Louis.
“If you buy by-right development, you’re setting a bad precedent,” Rogers said. “By right means that’s the right that the property owner has in the land. If you pay a developer $2.7 million for the by-right development, that’s the business interest that they then have in the property. It’s not like you’re buying the property as raw land, and they could then use that money to buy other by-right development, so it’s really not like you’re stopping by-right development—it’s just that you’re moving it somewhere else.”
And Rogers, who met with Mojax representatives and helped work out the Aldie Tavern deal, now says he is concerned about the county’s legal authority to buy that land. Virginia law permits localities to buy land “for any public use”—a requirement Rogers said the county may have trouble satisfying on the property near St. Louis.
“I also had some concerns about the propriety of using public funds to buy a piece of property where there was no public use that we could identify,” Rogers said. He estimated county staff members have poured tens of hours—even into the low hundreds—trying to find a public use for the land.
The developer has filed permits to build on nine lots—one fewer than would trigger a requirement for hydrogeologic study that would look into the project’s impact on groundwater. John Lovegrove, who serves on the committee that oversees the county’s Facilities Standards Manual that governs many technical requirements of development, charged during the hearing that “this developer is clearly gaming the system by putting in for nine houses when he fully intends to build 27 houses.”
“We’re worried about establishing a precedent of ‘greenmail,’ of developers buying land and the county buying them out,” Lovegrove said. “Look at the people in this room. How do you think they feel about that precedent? Their lives are going to be destroyed by your precedent. I don’t think that that is good reason to stop the county from buying this land. And I’m sorry, we just spent $14 million in Hillsboro fixing their water supply, and we can’t find enough money to buy this piece of land to prevent these people’s wells from being running dry. Why is that?”
And speaker at the hearing also referenced previous statements by County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), indicating both the packed boardroom, and a petition with hundreds of signatures collected by hand in-person.
“Chair Randall, you said that you wanted to see residents from St. Louis—I think we have a pretty good turnout tonight,” Madeleine Skinner said. Randall had said at a community meeting in St. Louis that “I’d like to see more people in the room.”
“You had also said that you didn’t really put much premise into computer-generated petitions, so there are a lot of us who did a lot of work to get those over 350, or about 350, signatures,” Skinner said. At a public hearing about the previous Aldie Taven-St. Louis proposal, Randall dismissed an online petition with close to 1,000 signatures.
No action was taken following the public hearing. The board was expected to discuss whether to move forward with the proposed downzoning at a future meeting.