The three candidates vying for chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors — Democratic incumbent Phyllis Randall, Republican Gary Katz and independent Sam Kroiz — discussed land use policy and the board’s political culture at an Oct. 13 debate hosted by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.
The debate was held at The National Conference Center in Lansdowne.
Kroiz, who owns a goat farm in Lovettsville, opened the debate by positioning himself as an alternative to party-aligned politicians who, he said, are giving “sweetheart deals” to developers and are “too busy fighting about typical partisan things” to be effective supervisors.
Kroiz also pledged not to accept donations from developers, special interest groups or people with business before the board.
Randall, the two-term incumbent, highlighted some of what she said were the board’s successes under her leadership, such as developing the Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan, creating an environmental commission and giving county employees the right to collective bargaining. Though it’s been a “very challenging” four years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic downturn and the “long overdue reckoning on race in America,” she said. “Loudoun didn’t just survive, it thrived.”
Katz, who works in technology sales, said that the board has not been business friendly and highlighted three ways that he would work to “incentivize” the economy.
“First,” he said, “the destructive impacts of the zoning ordinance rewrite need to be mitigated. Second, we need to create more commercial zoning so that there’s space for new businesses to actually come into Loudoun County. And third, we need to create affordable housing because we need people to be able to live here and work here to be able to sustain those new businesses that we’d like to have come.”
‘It’s time for a change’
The debate began with an issue unrelated to the business and economic policies that were the focus of the Chamber’s questions.
During her opening statement, Randall said that “all of us in Loudoun County stand with the people of Israel as they endure this humanitarian crisis,” apparently a reference to criticism she received for a social media post she made following Hamas’ recent attacks on Israel.
Katz responded that he was “pleased” to hear her support of Israel. In an op-ed published Oct. 12, the day before the debate, Katz criticized Randall for sharing a Facebook post that he called “antisemitic.” During the debate, he said that she probably would not have faced criticism “if she had said that right away and unequivocally without putting up what she put up.”
Katz repeatedly criticized Randall for how she has handled her role and said the board needs a “culture change.”
“Hostility towards the business community. Higher taxes. Corruption. This is the future Loudoun County if Phyllis Randall is reelected,” Katz said.
Later, Randall said that she had considered not running for reelection due to what she called a hostile political culture. “Last time, I knew I was gonna run again. This time was a little more difficult because there’s a tone in our county, our commonwealth and our nation that is just angrier all the time. Everyone is angry,” she said.
Katz said he was skeptical that Randall was considering not seeking reelection, pointing to two domains, phyllisrandall4congress.com and randall4congress.com, that were registered “minutes after [Rep.] Jennifer Wexton announced that she wasn’t running again,” Katz said. “So I’m not sure I buy it.” The domains were purchased several hours after Wexton’s announcement, according to publicly available data from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
As she previously told the Times-Mirror, Randall said she has not decided to run for Wexton’s seat.
Katz further criticized Randall by saying that she lied about using the county’s general fund to take overseas trips.
“I promise that your tax dollars are going to be spent for legitimate economic development purposes in Loudoun, not on personal pleasure trips and not in my role as chairman to be used to create a divisive environment in Loudoun County,” Katz said.
Randall denied using the county’s general fund to travel.
In her closing statement, Randall said that today’s political culture is unforgiving.
“I am not a perfect person. I have made and probably will make more mistakes,” she said. “But we have this culture now where it’s kind of this ‘gotcha’ all the time culture and you’re looking to hit somebody all the time. We’ve lost all sense of grace. We’ve lost our sense of forgiveness. We have lost sense of understanding. We have lost sense of almost what it means to be unified. If we do not get better, and do this better, we are going to lose our democracy.”
Randall continued, “There have been things said about me today that are not true. But you know what, okay. I’m not going to spend my time responding to those things because that’s not the productive use of my time.”
In response, Katz said, “I think that ‘gotcha’ isn’t the appropriate response to legitimate, substantiated claims. … The message is clear: if you disagree with Ms. Randall, you’re the problem. That’s not ‘gotcha.’ That’s the problem that we have on this board.”
“When leadership fails you,” he added, “it’s time for a change. And that is what I’m looking to bring to Loudoun County.”
Priorities as chair
Responding to a question about the candidates’ priorities for the next board term, Kroiz said he would work to “take political parties out of local government decision making” and maintain the current boundary between the Rural Policy Area and Transition Policy Area.
Randall said her priorities would be to see the Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan and the zoning ordinance rewrite through. She also said she would work to create a human services campus, “a one-stop place where we would have a lot of our nonprofits, our health department and our county government in the same place to get people through when they’re having their most difficult times.”
Katz said that he would work to diversify the economy, create affordable housing and establish an Office of the Inspector General. “We need to be able to self-regulate,” he said.
However, Katz said the issue he’s most concerned about is the zoning ordinance rewrite — a topic that showcased stark contrast between Randall and Katz.
Zoning ordinance rewrite
“Early on, we were off the tracks,” Randall said about the board’s work on the zoning ordinance rewrite. But “right now,” she said, “the business industries have been in lock step with us. We are having three, four meetings a week about the zoning ordinance.” The idea that the business community is not on board “is not correct anymore,” she said.
Randall said that the zoning ordinance should be revised regularly, “especially when you have a county that’s growing this quickly.” She said the board has worked through five of the 12 chapters in the rewrite and pointed to grandfathering, modifiability and attainable housing as the biggest issues, which she said the board has worked with the business community to tackle.
Katz disagreed and said that the board is rushing the process, that the business community’s concerns have been “ignored” and that there is a “clear disconnect” between the board and the business community.
“The Chamber asked for this to be reviewed starting in February,” he said. “This was ignored and fell on deaf ears.”
Katz called the rewrite “prescriptive and draconian” and cited specific concerns.
“[The school division] has gone and said that the zoning ordinance rewrite is going to impact the ability for creating fields for kids to use. The wineries and breweries are being mandated to grow a certain number and amount of a particular product in order to, you know, fall into their status. It makes it difficult to create more office space,” he said.
Kroiz agreed with Katz that the rewrite is “half-baked,” and he agreed with Randall that the zoning ordinance should be revised regularly. He said that as an independent candidate he would “bring some common sense to the board’s business.”
Randall later said that the zoning ordinance rewrite “is, one, not being rushed; it’s been four years. And, two, if you don’t do the zoning ordinance, your zoning ordinance and your comp plan are out of alignment, which creates so much confusion, which is why the business community actually is telling us right now, ‘please get this done.’ And I agree with them.”
Randall and Katz agreed that data centers play an important role in Loudoun’s economy but shared differing approaches for working with them.
“We have to stop being vitriolic and hostile to the very industry that has treated us so well,” Katz said. While data centers should not be built near residential areas, he said, “we have areas that are ripe for data centers.”
He cited the example of Dulles Cloud South — a proposal that would open a portion of the Transition Policy Area near the Prince William County line to more than 50 million square feet of data center development — and said he supported the concept because it would nearly triple the county’s data center tax revenue. The area “has two substations, overhead transmission wires, it’s ready to go. It’s not really near anywhere where someone would want to live,” he said.
Katz also said that he would consider using a transfer of development rights program “to transfer development rights from areas where they currently have by-right zoning [for data centers] to move that into Dullas Cloud South. So that way, you can appease resident concerns about data centers, but also be able to continue to benefit from the economic gains that they provide.”
Randall said that though some data centers have been “excellent neighbors,” Data Center Alley is “getting full,” and “data centers are now pushing out into areas where those by-right parcels exist, and those areas now are in residential neighborhoods.”
Randall added that the board needs to pass the zoning ordinance rewrite to keep data centers away from residential areas, as data centers “were not even envisioned” when the current zoning ordinance was passed. This led data centers to have by-right uses in areas zoned for office or industrial space, meaning these applications do not require board approval, she said.
“We have to actually get the zoning ordinance done so that we can get some restraints around where data centers can be allowed,” she said.
Kroiz said that data centers have “enabled us to get to this point where we are having to approve these new developments to get the billions of dollars upfront to pay the costs from past projects. And we also are almost having to approve new data centers to get more data center money to make up for those costs.” He said the board needs to “stop giving these deals to developers” and prevent data centers from being built near neighborhoods.
Randall cited the board’s accomplishments related to affordable housing, such as allocating a portion of the real property tax rate to the county’s housing fund. During the debate, Randall falsely stated this was 5 cents on the real estate tax rate; it’s one-half-cent of the tax rate, according to the fiscal 2024 budget.
“With that money,” she said, “we have leveraged $32 million — $32 million — in loans from 11 different sources to put attainable housing on the ground,” she said.
Randall said she intends to continue working on providing affordable homes for purchase and addressing what she called the county’s “NIMBY issue,” which stands for “not in my back yard.”
“I love my county. I love it very much,” she said. “But you talked about putting attainable housing down and the community screams at you and starts using words like ‘those people.’ And so the NIMBY issue has got to be addressed.”
Katz criticized the board’s current affordable housing strategy.
“The challenge with the affordable dwelling unit program right now is that the zoning ordinance rewrite is going to make it more expensive to be able to go and create those units,” he said. “… The other problem is these units graduate out, right? So eventually you have one that’s built and then 15 years later, they’re no longer in that program, so we are constantly playing catch up.”
Katz said that the county needs to “diversify the housing market within Loudoun County” and create a “thriving rental community.”
Kroiz said that the board’s current strategy has been worsening the affordable housing crisis, as the number of affordable units in new developments is “a drop in the bucket” compared to the county’s need. He said the board needs to stop making “sweetheart deals with developers” and, instead, look at affordable-by-design units.
“I think that a better way to tackle it is to incentivize developers to build units that are affordable by design because of the nature of what they are, rather than through a government program, which has not been working out very well,” Kroiz said.
Asked about commercial real estate developments in transit-centered areas, Randall drew from her time as chair of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. She said that transit-oriented areas need various types of transportation beyond just Metro, such as buses and ride- and bike-sharing. She added that developments in such areas should be dense and vertical, and that data centers should not be in this area.
Randall also said she supported zoning for “interim uses, so things that are not permanent so that later on when the market demands it you can build vertical office space. Interim use might be a surface parking lot that we call the interim use.”
In response, Katz said, “I fully support creating office development by transit areas and be able to increase mixed use spaces. I think that that’s something that we desperately need within Loudoun County to diversify the economy. I am very pro-business, pro-diversification of the commercial sector.”