Influence of Developers, Allies Runs Deep
By Michael Laris and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 21, 2007; A01
Six months after they took office in 2004, members of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors demonstrated in a single afternoon their ability to help a friend.
First, they voted 6 to 3 to boost the number of homes that could be built on the family farm of Dale Polen Myers, a former supervisor who had been instrumental in getting many of them elected. The next month, a builder bought the property from Myers’s family for $12.2 million — four times its assessed value before the zoning decision, records show.
Next, the board agreed unanimously to authorize the county to purchase a different parcel for $13.5 million, once again helping Myers, who was acting as the real estate agent. That earned Myers and her boss a commission that by industry standards would range from $270,000 to $675,000.
Such coziness has become routine among some Loudoun officials and a group of politically connected developers, landowners and others in the real estate industry, The Washington Post found in a year-long investigation.
An examination of thousands of e-mails, telephone records and county land databases and scores of interviews shows the extent to which this network of development advocates was able to influence land-use decisions in one of the country’s fastest-growing and richest counties.
Supervisors sometimes followed step-by-step direction from those in the development industry on how to vote and what to say in public, according to e-mails and other county records. One planning commissioner who resigned last year voted favorably on projects by companies with which he had business ties.
In their three years in office, a majority of the current board members have voted at least two dozen times in favor of projects benefiting people or companies who helped the officials get elected. Many of those political backers were enriched, including developers and landowners who made millions when their home-building and commercial projects were approved by the county board, as well as development lawyers who netted large legal fees and real estate agents who made commissions on the deals.
Voting for friends or political allies is not, in itself, improper under Virginia conflict-of-interest laws. Those laws prohibit officials from accepting items of value, including business opportunities, that could influence their actions and from voting on matters in which they have a “personal interest.”
Experts caution that in many cases it is difficult to determine whether a public official has a personal interest because the legal definition is complex and open to interpretation.
The county’s supervisors and planning officials have served as gatekeepers to a wave of suburban development. Since 1990, Loudoun’s population has tripled to more than a quarter-million, transforming a landscape of open fields to a series of expanding construction sites. That growth has brought thriving new communities and jobs, as well as worsening traffic and the financial burden of building new schools and providing other services.
Loudoun officials defended their efforts to work closely with developers and others.
“This is local citizen government, and these are complicated issues, and you have to reach out to somebody,” said Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles). He said supervisors must tap the expertise and resources of the private sector to solve the county’s transportation and other challenges, and that means working proactively with development companies and approving more houses to help generate additional funds.
Snow and other officials also said that their votes were based on the projects’ merits and their view of what is best for the county.
Myers declined repeated requests to be interviewed.
In recent months, FBI agents have interviewed several people in the county about development decisions, according to three who said they have been contacted. One person, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the inquiry, was interviewed at length and said the agents probed for information about whether local officials may have development interests that would conflict with their duties on a public body.
Debbie Weierman, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Washington Field Office, would not say whether agents are conducting an investigation in Loudoun but said her office “is looking into reports of possible public corruption, unfair business practices and the like . . . in the Washington metropolitan area.”
Until late last year, the board votes helped spur the county’s swift growth. But as voters have shown signs of displeasure, supervisors seeking reelection in November have backed off from their general enthusiasm for rapid development, voting down a major building project known by advocates as Dulles South and limiting construction in western Loudoun.
At the same time, new construction has slowed with a sagging market. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of homes that have been approved are yet to be built….
Talking Points Prepared
As the pro-growth supervisors settled into office in 2004, they appeared to be taking cues from people with a financial stake in board decisions.
Jeffery Cowart, president of Delta Strategies, Inc., a Leesburg public relations company that has advocated for Greenvest and others, coached Snow, another of the new pro-growth majority, on how to answer critics of growth, records show. In one set of ” talking points,” Cowart included advice on how Snow should respond if he was asked about political contributions from Greenvest. The company gave $2,000 to his campaign.
“Steve Snow’s vote cannot be bought and sold,” Cowart wrote in a 2004 e-mail, providing language for the supervisor. “I served my country in the military for 25 years to protect and preserve democracy and the buying and selling of votes was not among those values.”
Cowart also wrote statements for Snow supporting Cowart’s causes, including a local hospital he represented, e-mails show. And Cowart helped prepare a PowerPoint presentation that Snow could use in meetings to represent his thoughts on why more development in his district was good for the county, records show.
Snow, 61, who refers often to his experience as a military planner, said his work with developers simply reflected his political beliefs.
“I did what I said I was going to do,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s a supposition, I think, built in now to the psyche of the American people, that if you’re in politics that you . . . inherently must be corrupt, that you must be on the take,” he said. “They just assume you’re there for self-interest, as opposed to . . . public service.” Snow said he is in office to protect property rights and solve problems for residents in his district.
Once, in a moment of frustration, Snow became discouraged with his party and entertained thoughts of resignation. He dashed off an e-mail in 2005 to county GOP chairman Minchew, who had joined with Myers, Greenvest and others to help elect the new board.
“I will resign . . . as Supervisor if you wish,” Snow wrote.
Minchew pressed Snow to stay.
“You are too valuable.”
The Ritz-Carlton Project
In the summer of 2005, the board was scheduled to vote on an enclave of resort homes managed by the Ritz-Carlton. The development, including a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, is across the street from Oak Hill, the still-pristine estate where President James Monroe retired in 1825.
On the eve of the vote, Tulloch and Snow received a detailed e-mail from Minchew, who represented the Ritz developer and had urged them to support his proposal. The vote was also important to Myers: She had been hired as a consultant for the project, according to Jim Brown, one of the developers.
Minchew wanted two entrances to the development so that service workers could enter separately from wealthy residents. The owners of Monroe’s estate opposed the plan, saying it would disturb their historic property, a case also made by Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge).
“Dear Bruce and Steve . . . You have one heck of an agenda tomorrow,” read the e-mail from Minchew dated July 18.
“I would suggest that Steve simply make the motion (we will e-mail over to you today a draft motion) and let the application be approved over Mr. Burton’s objections, probably on a 5-4 vote,” wrote Minchew, who copied the e-mail to Myers.
“I think that as little discussion as possible is best course of action.”
The two supervisors followed Minchew’s script, with Snow making the motion and Tulloch seconding it. After heated debate, the vote came out better than Minchew predicted: 6 to 3.
Minchew declined to be interviewed.
Tulloch had taken a keen interest in the Ritz project, which he said would be an attractive, high-end addition to the county. He traveled to a similar Ritz-Carlton resort in Jupiter, Fla., at his own expense, he said, and lunched with Nicklaus to discuss golf courses. Later, he offered to use his office budget to fly Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman there to demonstrate the benefits of such a development, Artman said.
Artman said she declined the trip, saying that she would base her zoning decision solely “on what the ordinance says.”
This Year’s Race
In its first two years, Loudoun’s board of supervisors, driven by its pro-growth majority, approved more than 9,000 new homes brought forward by a host of building firms, according to county records.
Greenvest gained permission in four key votes to build more than 1,800 homes in addition to the roughly 300 that would have been allowed under the previous zoning. The total value of those additional homes could reach $1 billion, based on current sale prices.
The recent defeat by supervisors of the Dulles South plan, in which they rejected Greenvest’s proposal to build 15,000 homes there, does not end the company’s plans to build in the area. Greenvest is pursuing four major applications to build the same number of homes there. If the county rejects those plans, the company calculates that it could build about 2,000 homes without new approvals by the board.
Those who helped elect the pro-growth board in 2003 are gearing up for this year’s race, and at least some of their efforts have been aimed at removing one supervisor: Waters, who fell out of line with some of her Republican colleagues.
Waters, the former executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum who had been elected with Myers’s help, began balking in 2004 at Myers’s calls for swifter home building in rural Loudoun and near Dulles.
“We need to ostracize her,” Snow wrote in a 2004 e-mail. “She is anti-growth and anti-property.”
Snow’s e-mail went to Patricia Shockey, a Myers confidante. “Later when the opportunity presents itself, go for the jugular,” Shockey told Snow. “Dale Myers will get her.”
News researchers Madonna Lebling, Bobbye Pratt and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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