Some of the biggest communities in Loudoun have come together to make a bigger impact.
According to the Piedmont Environmental Council, more than 60 percent of Loudouners live in a Homeowners Association—dwarfing the population of all of Loudoun’s incorporated towns together, although some HOAs are in towns. While they contain the majority of the county’s population, can have very direct impacts on people’s lives, and often face challenges similar to municipalities, they have historically little formal recognition in the county government and little cooperation among them.
The founding members of the LoudounCoalition of Homeowners and Condominium Associations said the county government’s work to write a new comprehensive plan showed they needed a seat at the table.
“We, as HOA leaders, we have to manage the downstream effects of the decisions that are made in the strategic planning process,” said Cascades Community Association Board of Directors President Matt Durham, who also serves as president of the new HOA coalition. With a population of close to 12,000 people according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Cascades alone has more residents than any Loudoun town except Leesburg—and more than 16 Virginia counties and eight cities.
He gave the example of parking.
“You will not find an HOA or condominium community in Loudoun County—or probably in any county—that will tell you that they have sufficient parking,” Durham said. “… Those are all zoning decisions. And we are all massively under-parked, because builders don’t want to build parking spaces, right? They don’t make any money off of those.”
And because there was no organized HOA voice during work on the new comprehensive plan, he said, they missed the chance to make themselves heard.
Other issues HOAs feel even more keenly about include their roads, lights and other infrastructure elements. They are built by developers and often privately owned, falling to the HOA to maintain after the developer leaves. That means while the residents pay the same taxes as everyone else, those taxes don’t maintain the streets in their neighborhoods. Instead their HOA has to pay for those—in other words, residents’ HOA fees, pointed out the coalition’s vice president John Lau. He is also the founding president of the Hamlets at Red Cedar HOA and a member of the board of directors.
“Where I am in Red Cedar, we’ve got 26 miles of private roads that we’ve got to deal with, lights, and really got the short shrift from the county in the usual way,” Lau said. “Because the standards they have for those roads are less than the standards for roads that the county or state would assume responsibility for after the development is complete. So, we’re stuck with streets and roads that are not wide enough.”
“I really think what we need is the establishment of some sort of advisory board or commission, and I know there are many—I’m on the Fiscal Impact Committee,” Durham said. “But I think that’s the sort of structure we need where we’re established like that in that form, meet regularly, probably get the chance to not just engage with the Board of Supervisors but also senior staff across the primary topics that are germane to HOAs, and have the opportunity to review and comment on their initiatives before they enact them.”
Both Durham and Lau gave much credit for the idea of bringing the HOAs together to Gem Bingol, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s field representative in Loudoun and Clarke Counties and a regular presence at county government meetings.
“Part of PEC’s mission is to get people involved in their community and having a role in making it a better place,” Bingol said. She first had the idea early in her work with the PEC, where she started in 1998.
“I work with all kinds of groups, and within working with HOAs, it was clear to me—it’s been clear for a long time—that HOAs need to be more involved as a stakeholder group,” Bingol said.
She already had connections to some HOAs through her work helping them figure out sustainable landscaping. She said getting involved in the nitty-gritty of local government, such as zoning ordinances, is important for homeowners.
“Their property is the visual result and physical result of zoning laws and the Facilities Standards Manual, and my goal has always been, in working for PEC, to help people understand their community, their involvement, and how it affects them,” Bingol said. And, she said, “we are now living the results of that lack of understanding.”
“I used to think, ‘oh, I vote at the national level and the environment is taken care of, they take care of the environment,’” Bingol said. “And the reality is, in my world, in my personal world, the decisions about the environment that surrounds me are made right here, every day. And I figure if I didn’t realize that, there are probably a lot of other people who didn’t.”
Today, the coalition includes HOAs of every size and from every local election district. Durham first announced the new coalition to supervisors near the beginning of their term, but said “obviously COVID threw everything for a loop.” But that didn’t interrupt the coalition’s other purpose—sharing knowledge and experience.
“We want to provide a place for HOAs to collaborate for their mutual benefit, information sharing, best practices, war stories about companies that we work with, whatever,” Durham said. Right now, he said, the hot topic is reopening pools amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with different HOAs sharing what they’ve been doing, how they’re making their decisions, and what extra costs they’re running into.
“We’re only asking that our input be taken seriously,” Lau said. “That’s the problem: we had no vehicle for offering organized input in the past, and we got run roughshod over by developers and the special interests.”
The Loudoun Coalition of Homeowners and Condominium Associations will hold its next virtual meeting Monday, July 20 at 6 p.m. For more information or to get involved, contact Matt Durham at email@example.com.