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...of today's Washington Post is a story on the dream of keeping rural Loudoun County's gravel & country roads around for much longer.

Allen Cochran shouts “Here we go!” and the sheep skitter from a weathered gray barn, bounding into golden afternoon light on a mile-long journey to pasture. Their beating hoofs sound like a sudden downpour on the centuries-old gravel road.

The tableau feels ripped from rural Ireland or even another century, but it is playing out not too far from a Chipotle. This is western Loudoun County, Va., where the superheated suburban development of the D.C. area runs headlong into a picturesque rural enclave that’s been defined by farms and horses for 300 years.

It has become the latest focus of an unlikely movement to preserve a slice of landscape often thought of as waiting its turn for improvement: unpaved roads.

While hamlets in Upstate New York and elsewhere have taken steps to protect unpaved roads, an ambitious and unorthodox plan being pushed in Loudoun goes beyond most others: put all of the roughly 250 miles of gravel roads that meander across the county on the National Register of Historic Places.

Loudoun’s system of unpaved roads is one of the largest in Virginia — surprising given that the network is less than 50 miles from the nation’s capital, and that the eastern part of the county is home to a major airport, a Metro line and a burgeoning tech hub that features tracts of data centers.

The county has been among the nation’s fastest-growing for decades — its population has shot up sevenfold since 1980 to more than 430,000 — and preservationists see the plan as a last-ditch effort to save the vanishing vestiges of rustic life from being swallowed by the burbs.

Supporters say the lanes evoke Loudoun’s rural soul, history and charm. Detractors see a quixotic quest to thwart the most basic of steps into modernity. They complain of rattling rides to work and Starbucks that sometimes feel like sitting in the seat of a tractor.

The battle has grown unusually fierce, so much so that Loudoun County Supervisor Caleb Kershner refers to it as the “road wars.” Similar fights have played out in other localities across the country as the movement to preserve unpaved roads has gained traction in recent decades.

“You have the old versus the new,” said Kershner, who grew up on a gravel road in Frederick County, Md. “Some people want that way of life. Some people don’t. … It kind of pits neighborhoods against each other.”

A living museum

A network of roads is an atypical pick for the National Park Service’s register, which includes Abraham Lincoln’s home and the Statue of Liberty. Supporters say Loudoun’s roads belong there because they span the sweep of American history.

They envision a one-of-a-kind “living museum” that unfolds around each bend, whether by foot, bike, horse or car. Some of the earliest roads — which predate the founding of the country — follow Native American trails. A young George Washington traversed others as a surveyor; enslaved people built the fieldstone walls that line some. Armies clashed on them during the Civil War.

Many roads still follow their original routes, worn deep into hillsides and hollows over the creeping years. They pass towering “witness trees,” old oaks and other species that have stood through much of the nation’s life. This bucolic oasis forms a kind of recreational trail system for residents and draws tourists and cyclists who are a boon to Loudoun’s economy.

A spot on the register would not bar paving outright, but it would add hurdles that would make it more difficult.

The plan, spearheaded by a group called America’s Routes, is also a bid to hold on to something intangible — a kind of life that has all but disappeared in the pressure cooker of the nation’s capital.

“It’s a way to slow things down a little bit,” Emily Houston, who is part of the group, said of the gravel roads. “You get to know your neighbors. The road is the center of your community in a way. Everybody is out walking their dog or riding their horses. One of your neighbors is driving by and you stop for a chat.”

But where some see character, others see a dirty track, as rutted as an old washboard, that grows less appealing with each flat tire and trip to the carwash. Many recent transplants are drawn by tidy subdivisions of new homes that have sprouted on former farmland and are more affordable than those in D.C.’s inner-ring suburbs. They say that the gravel roads can’t safely handle the increasing volume of traffic, and that preserving them could choke development.

The fight between these competing visions erupted at a Board of Supervisors meeting in September, where residents clashed for over an hour over paving a handful of roads — including just 300 feet of one. One road was ultimately taken off the list, and the decision on others was punted to this year.

Barbara Kauffman, who lives off an unpaved road named Old Wheatland, summed up objections to gravel roads succinctly, calling them relics of a “horse-and-buggy era.”

“They are neither quaint nor charming,” Kauffman told the supervisors. “They are bone-rattling, teeth-jarring, dangerous, dusty nuisances.”

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Another thing they need to consider, and maybe I missed it, is the overall cost. They need to weigh the cost of necessary continuous maintenance on gravel roads vs less frequent but more expensive repairs on paved roads. Traffic patterns could be a deciding factor. 
Out old county in Nebraska paved several rural roads in the 70s as a means to provide farmers some more solid roadways for moving farm machinery and crops and for propane trucks and residents some better roads during heavy rains. 
Some of those paved roads have fallen into serious disrepair because they can’t justify the maintenance costs of the asphalt for no more traffic that goes down the road so they are being milled back to gravel. 
There is another road with the opposite problem. It’s about 15 miles long with 3 unpaved miles in the middle. They won’t pave them because they know it would become a major through way they don’t want to police or maintain. 

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2 hours ago, groupw said:

Another thing they need to consider, and maybe I missed it, is the overall cost. They need to weigh the cost of necessary continuous maintenance on gravel roads vs less frequent but more expensive repairs on paved roads. Traffic patterns could be a deciding factor. 
Out old county in Nebraska paved several rural roads in the 70s as a means to provide farmers some more solid roadways for moving farm machinery and crops and for propane trucks and residents some better roads during heavy rains. 
Some of those paved roads have fallen into serious disrepair because they can’t justify the maintenance costs of the asphalt for no more traffic that goes down the road so they are being milled back to gravel. 
There is another road with the opposite problem. It’s about 15 miles long with 3 unpaved miles in the middle. They won’t pave them because they know it would become a major through way they don’t want to police or maintain. 

Cost is always a factor and with smaller roads like these where a dozen or so home "benefit" from the paving but the 400,000 other residents and businesses pay for it makes it tougher to justify.  LoCo is one of the wealthiest in the country, so they rarely seem to worry about these types of budget issues.

The biggest factors remains the "new" folks moving in, buying a property on a gravel road, and then going hard trying to get it paved.  Likewise, developers with plenty of money buying remote properties (often farm tracts), building a neighborhood of homes, paving their new neighborhood, and then either paying for the paving of the connecting gravel or just knowing new owners will eventually demand the gravel roads around that paved oasis be paved too.  Then there is also the huge growth of vineyards & wineries in NoVA that are "farms" first and off the beaten track, but once the tasting room opens or the wedding hosting begins, they expect asphalt to their entryway.  

I'm selfish because those are my "home roads" for 90+% of my gravel riding.  I want that gravel network to stay around for a long time more. In just the 4 years I've had a gravel bike, I've already seem some gravel stretches transformed into paved roads - almost overnight.  I don't mind riding paved "country roads" but I do that on my road bike, and I have plenty of those already.  I also don't think wineries or wedding venues appreciate that the reason folks enjoy going to them is their remote locations.  Turn that gravel road into a busy thoroughfare, and you've killed a lot of the "ambience".

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12 minutes ago, Parsnip Totin Jack said:

Thanks for sharing. I’ve ridden on a lot of those gravel roads. The gravel keeps traffic speed down so it’s safer for cyclists to ride them. Speed limits of 25 mph are generally followed. Smooth pavement leads to traffic driving at 60 in a 45 zone. 

Reading the comments is fun and frightening. :)  Most folks have weird impressions of what a "gravel" road is, but the Post also has some poor representations of gravel in the article.  Most of the roads in the photos and videos looked paved. But that's also part of the "system" in place - paved turns to gravel and may return to paved. Steep slopes paved or supported with grooved concrete - with or without some gravel on the top. Lots and lots of hard pack dirt, some groomed and rideable small/medium sized gravel, and a few stretches of that fist sized gravel nonsense.

But I do like one person pointing out the old saying of "Don't Fairfax Loudoun" has evolved to "Don't Loudoun Clark" :) I like Clark County riding, but that's even farther from home, so not as easy to reach out my front door on the Diverge :(

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