Fending off Sprawl

Oatlands works to preserve its rural setting.

Over the past two centuries, Oatlands Plantation, the Leesburg, Va., estate owned by the Trust since 1965, has survived major debt, conversion into a boarding house, and the Civil War. Today, as the 330-acre Loudoun County property celebrates its 200th year, it is confronting another serious threat, one that faces rural historic sites nationwide: suburban sprawl.

Although it will not topple Oatlands' Greek revival house or trample its four acres of English gardens, the encroachment of subdivisions could destroy the setting that gives the plantation context and makes it more than just another beautiful old house. Oatlands' "viewshed" in the foothills of the Blue Ridge consists of woods and open fields, but near the property's borders are examples of the treeless neighborhoods that have been sprouting in Loudoun in recent years. Only 35 miles from Washington, D.C., Loudoun is the nation's second-fastest-growing county.

The first major threat to Oatlands came in 2001, when a group of developers, Konterra Elm Street, announced their intention to purchase the farm just north of the plantation. Fortunately, Konterra offered to work with Oatlands to minimize the proposed subdivision's impact. Oatlands joined with the Trust and the Jamestown Compact Land Trust to buy the 67-acre stretch of the tract visible from the landmark. The National Trust would acquire title to the land, which Oatlands would maintain. The preservation coalition raised the needed $2.14 million (reduced from $2.7 million when the developers obtained a charitable-contribution tax deduction). Thanks to donations from foundations, individuals, and county, state, and federal governments, the deal went through. David Williams, an Oatlands board member and local landowner, lauds Konterra's willingness to compromise as "a great example of how for-profits and nonprofits can work together to make things happen in conservation."

Encouraged by this victory, open space advocates turned their attention to land southeast of Oatlands, where NV Homes is preparing to build 277 houses on a 200-acre tract called Courtland Woods, a quarter of a mile from the Oatlands property line. Construction, which could also harm adjoining Goose Creek, Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, and other nearby wetlands, will likely begin this year. Although a coalition of conservation organizations and citizens is attempting to raise funds to buy the land, so far the owner has been unwilling to negotiate. The Trust and coalition are preparing to take legal action against the Army Corps of Engineers, which sanctioned construction of a road to the subdivision by ruling that the development would not harm historic properties.

"There's a lot of momentum," says Jim Vaughan, Trust vice president for historic sites, of recent conservation efforts. If construction can be averted at Courtland Woods, "there would be this contiguous [protected] property—more than a mile long."

Despite all the development pressure, Loudoun County's preservation story has a silver lining. The Trust now deems land conservation "enough of a concern that we want to develop generic plans to deal with sprawl and viewshed threats at our properties," says Vaughan. The Land Trust Alliance, a national group that promotes voluntary preservation of open space, reports that the number of acres placed in conservation easements nationwide grew nearly 500 percent between 1990 and 2000. And in 2002 in northern Virginia's Piedmont, residents worried about loss of farmland "eased" to land trusts a record 22,648 acres, more than 4,000 in Loudoun.

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