ARLINGTON, Va. -- If not for Washington's train system and the vision of community leaders in the 1970s, Arlington might be nothing more than a former suburb swallowed by sprawl.
Instead, it is the envy of its Northern Virginia neighbors, with the lowest property tax rate and highest office occupancy in the region. It has sought-after neighborhoods and an economy so sound it has lowered taxes twice in two years.
Less than 20 miles away, Loudoun County, once a sleepy farming community, is reacting to a wave of development that took it by surprise in the mid-1990s and has forced its property tax rate to nearly double in 10 years. County leaders put brakes on growth with the only control they had, the county's zoning ordinance, hoping it can withstand the 193 lawsuits now trying to undo it.
Like Atlanta's suburban counties, the Northern Virginia communities surrounding Washington must contend with gridlock, exploding demands for services by new residents and increasing environmental regulation.
Decisions that Atlanta's leaders make in the months ahead may determine whether the region's communities follow Arlington's model for coping with growth and traffic, or Loudoun County's.
Arlington is the smallest county in the nation, only 25.8 square miles. Just across the Potomac River from Washington, it was a logical location for the Washington Metro system's first thrust outside city borders.
Eleven of 20 stations on the rail line are in Arlington. The first opened in 1979. By then, the county already had a bold plan to make the most of the system while protecting residential zones. Planners and county leaders in the early 1970s pushed to build the rail line underground and away from highway paths. Then, they zoned the areas closest to the stations for high-density development.
In a move unusual for the time, the zoning allowed construction of residential, commercial and retail space on the same plot of land. The high-density zoning was restricted to preserve green space and protect existing single-family and multifamily residential areas.
`A lot of struggle'
"Where the stations went in and development pressures were created, there was a lot of struggle with the neighborhoods as to how much development to allow," said Ron Kirby, transportation director of the Washington Council of Governments, the regional planning organization for metro Washington. "Even in Arlington, which planned a long way ahead, there was always somebody who was resisting the development coming in. The key to success there was to plan a long way ahead."
Loudoun County's failure to foresee what lay ahead as Washington-area development spread toward its borders has left it grappling with the consequences.
Loudoun's population has almost tripled since 1990, and residential building in the county is at an all-time high. Loudoun is the second-fastest-growing county in the United States, just ahead of metro Atlanta's Henry and Forsyth counties.
MCI, formerly WorldCom, and America Online built headquarters in Loudoun in the late 1990s.
MCI spokeswoman Julie Moore said proximity to Washington Dulles International Airport and the large number of workers the company already had in the region made Loudoun "a natural fit."
AOL's move to Loudoun in 1996 brought more than 3,000 workers into the county and drew other companies that also built rambling campuses along the Virginia 28 corridor.
"More and more development is occurring farther out, and people are commuting long distances," said transportation planner Kirby. "As employment goes out, then residential can go even farther out. ... It's just economics."
County leaders were unprepared for the public service demands of so many new residents. Two-lane county roads leading to the high-tech corridor are jammed at rush hour, schools are filling up as fast as the county can build them, and police and fire squads are stretched to the limit.
In contrast, Arlington officials in the 1970s understood mass transit would bring change, and they engaged residents in deciding how to make the changes benefit the county.
1975 land-use plan
After gathering public opinion, county leaders adopted Arlington's land-use plan in 1975 while Metro stops were under construction. The plan encouraged high-density, mixed-use development along the transit spine.
"Less than 7 percent of the land area of the county is committed to high-density development around the Metro stations and within a quarter to a third of a mile or so. And anything else out there, we've kept the same. That's the idea," said Chris Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington Board and a former board chairman for the Washington Metro system.
About two-thirds of the planned construction around stations is now complete, and Arlington is reaping the benefits. In the midst of a recession that has driven office vacancy rates to nearly 15 percent nationwide, office vacancy rates in Arlington are 11.5 percent.
The rest of Northern Virginia has an average office vacancy rate of about 17.5 percent.