Washington DC has perhaps the most hierarchical geography in our country, an odd distinction for the capital of a supposed democracy. The tops dogs live in the tony parts of the District, Georgetown and Northwest. The suburbs have a clear pecking order: Fairfax VA is preferred to Montgomery MD, which is superior to Prince George MD. The lowest rung belongs to the souls relegated to the poorer precincts of DC, a city with a large income/opportunity divide.
As the Federal government grows, so do the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The Metro is slated to extend all the way to Loudoun County. Frederick County, more than sixty miles west, is filling up with single-family homes. That growth, however, skips over Clark County, a bucolic place of plantation grace that is seemingly unaffected by the rush to growth.
My friend Chuck Downs lives in a cabin, albeit a very large one, on the crest of Hickory Knob, a thirty-acre wooded parcel with commanding views of the Shenandoah River. He invited Cathleen and Nick Snow to dinner; they live in a passive solar, geothermal heated house on 60 acres of fields that they lease to local farmers. Carmen Barros and Warren Howell also joined us. They’ve lived in Loudoun County for over forty years and recently subdivided their land to create a second lot, where they built a Glide House and organically farm seven acres. Our far-reaching conversation kept coming back to how Clark County remains rural in the face of development pressure.
“In Virginia, the counties have the biggest say in how development occurs. What’s interesting is how each county does it differently. In Loudoun County we’ve developed a two-prong approach.” Warren explained how the eastern part of the county, where the subway will extend, continues to urbanize. There are fewer restrictions there. The western side, where Carmen and Warren live, will retain a rural, farming character. That actually requires more restrictions.
Clark County has a long pastoral tradition. It contained some of the largest plantations in Virginia, though wheat was the main crop, not tobacco or cotton. In the 1970’s the county established a stringent approach to development that has successfully kept the area rural and fended off development challenges. Parcels have ‘DUR’ (dwelling unit right) designations. Chuck’s thirty acres has two DUR, though there are larger parcels that have none. DUR’s are a form of real estate currency, affecting a property’s value. However, many DUR’s are not exercised. Numerous conservation groups will ‘buy back’ DUR’s and retire them in perpetuity.
How will we live tomorrow?
“I will get up and see my personal trainer and do Pilates. I see our trends as positive. More people are growing their own food. Even Trump, I see him as the dark side we need to get to the light. We have to have more respect for nature. We have to respect our choices, even when they are mistakes. We have to govern a little less. It’s about each individual finding their own place.” – Cathleen
“We moved here almost fifty years ago to live communally. We weren’t trying to get away from it all; we wanted a new set of ‘all.’ This is the South. Our children (part Chilean) were not welcome in the schools here.” – Carmen