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At a ‘Precipice’: As Hearings Open, Agriculture and Rural Interests Push on Comp Plan 4/24/19

Representatives from the coalition of organizations, led by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, gather around a copy of the thick binder full of analysis and recommendations for the county’s new comprehensive plan. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

As county supervisors enter what are expected to be the closing weeks of a years-long, much-delayed process to write a new comprehensive plan, the farmers and lovers of green and rural spaces are making one last push to protect their way of life.

The comprehensive plan has taken three years to arrive on the county board’s dais. Supervisors plan to hold only five work sessions on the comprehensive plan, between April 3 to June 5, bound by a statutory requirement to review the plan within 90 days of the Planning Commission’s endorsement, although some supervisors have already wondered openly about taking longer. The plan arrives on their desks in the final year of the board’s term, as supervisors begin campaigning for reelection or other office.

As they begin their work, supervisors will have with them a thick, 247-page binder of recommendations and analyses from a group of agricultural, outdoor, and conservation groups and towns led by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition.

“I consider this a precipice moment for Loudoun,” said Middleburg Mayor Bridge Littleton. “I really, really do, because if we get this wrong … it could really be disastrous, and I hate to say it: it’s going to be hard to get it right.”

At the heart of much of the debate around the comprehensive plan and protecting Loudoun’s rural reaches is the open question of housing development. The county Planning Commission spent months laboring over the new plan, heavily focused on finding places for more housing in Loudoun.

“These contrasting views are held on the one hand by the business, real estate, and development communities that seek to accommodate the unconstrained housing market demand,” reads a letter accompanying the binder prepared for county supervisors. “On the other hand, the large majority of the residents who are concerned this will create fundamental issues with the quality of schools, traffic congestion, environmental impacts, and lowering the quality of life of present and future families.”

The commission’s draft of the plan is expected to allow more than 14,000 more homes in Loudoun in the Transition Policy Area by 2040 than what the current comprehensive plan calls for. The transition area, which is about 7 percent of the county by area, would absorb more than half of the difference in housing between the plans. The current plan is forecasted to bring more than 29,000 new residential units into the county by 2040; the Planning Commission’s draft, almost double that at more than 56,000.

A county report from July 2017 showed there were already more than 29,000 residential units approved or zoned under the current plan that could be built—with more upzonings approved since.

County staff members estimated a total with nearly 135,000 homes already built at that time, the total possible buildout under the current plan is more than 183,000 homes.

The additional housing worries conservation and agriculture interests—and contrasts with what people said when the county government launched a series of well-attended public input sessions before starting to write the new plan. While some worried about housing costs, which Planning Commissioners and business interests have argued can be ameliorated by allowing more housing, many people worried more about problems like traffic and growth.

Littleton said when the top issues from citizen input were managing growth and catching up on facilities and infrastructure, “if those aren’t the primary focuses of what we do in this plan, we’re not doing service to the people that elected us.”

And Al Van Huyck, who chaired the Planning Commission that wrote the current plan and today chairs the preservation and conservation coalition, said if development is allowed in the transition area, it could be quick to change.

“Not since the Oklahoma land rush have so many interests lined up on the border waiting to rush in, and once that’s done, we’re done, we’re cooked,” Van Huyck said.

He also worries a recommendation to move some parcels out of the Rural Policy Area into the transition area could start eroding that long-held boundary on development, as well.

“When you vote for something, you set a precedent and you cannot deny any similar argument,” Van Huyck said. “Well, this will be the first time that rural land is converted, and the argument for future nibbles at the rural land will be set.”

A Robust Review

Their thorough review of the draft plan applauds much of it, and includes suggestions, tweaks and critiques of many specific policies. But there is also a broader criticism of some of the themes of the plan, from its housing focus to an emphasis on flexibility.

Gem Bingol, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s representative in Loudoun and Clarke counties, said more developed areas have more specific, prescriptive planning.

“I would ask the question, do you get what you want by saying ‘eh, whatever?’ Or do you say, this is what I want, do A, B, C and D? In order for us to get the vision that we are trying to accomplish, I think you have to lay it out there.”

A phrase in the plan describes the vision for the Transition Policy Area as “visually distinct from adjoining policy areas, providing expansive open space with recreational opportunities while accommodating a development pattern that promotes environmental protection, housing diversity, quality design, and economic growth.”

The coalition instead recommended describing it as “enduring, visually and spatially distinct from adjoining policy areas, utilizing green infrastructure policies to provide 50 percent or more open space that supports and protects public drinking water source watersheds, natural and historic assets.” It also speaks of “abundant trails, parks, and recreational space” and “limited residential development.”

The proposed description of the Rural Policy Area is similarly beefed up. The draft plan calls it “an enduring rural landscape that is characterized by a unique composite of natural and man-made environments, rural economy uses, working agricultural lands, open space, and a limited residential base.” Coalition members would like to see that changed to “a permanent countywide asset, with an enduring rural landscape characterized by limited residential development, a unique composite of natural and historic assets, rural economy and equine uses supporting tourism, working agricultural lands and open space.”

Their suggestion also references “a range of and management tools and performance standards to maintain long-term economic, environmental and social sustainability.” The Planning Commission has removed one of those tools, the county-funded Purchase of Development Rights program, that is in the county’s current plan from the draft. That plan has been on the books unfunded since a newly elected Board of Supervisors in 2004 took dramatic steps to reverse much of the previous board’s work in conservation.

That program would allow supervisors to use county tax money to purchase and retire development rights on rural lands, permanently protecting them from development. In February, Republican supervisors shot down a proposal to explore restarting that program.

County supervisors have been split over a Transfer of Development Rights program, which would set up a marketplace for private landowners to buy development rights from farmland to apply to their own property elsewhere. That proposal is still under consideration.

Coalition members also were concerned about the relative lack of references to the county’s green resources in the new plan. They have suggested making more specific a chapter on natural and heritage resources, which begins with a vision statement: “Protect and enhance the County’s natural and heritage resources, which are fundamental to the health, safety, welfare, sustainability, and enjoyment of current and future generations.”

Their preferred replacement would include ways to do it, referring to “a connected network of irreplaceable natural and heritage assets by partnering with organizations, towns, state and federal agencies to provide health, safety, economic and social well-being, biodiversity, sustainability, and enjoyment for current and future generations.”

“This board really has an opportunity that, while the economy’s doing well, and while we have all the work being done, to redirect how we focus on these issues and get it right for the next 20 years,” Littleton said.

“The war’s not over, even if we win on the planning issues that we’re raising,” Van Huyck said. “Next year there’ll be applications, there’ll be pressure to make the changes, because that pressure is going to be constant.”

The package of comprehensive plan suggestions includes input from the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, The Mosby Heritage Area Association, the Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Unison Preservation Society, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Bike Loudoun, the Loudoun Preservation Society, the Loudoun historic Village Alliance including six village associations, The Coalition of Loudoun Towns, The Loudoun County Farm Bureau, Potomac Heritage Trail Association, the Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Transition Area Alliance, Bike Loudoun, the Loudoun Walking and Volkssport Club, 350 Loudoun, and the Catoctin Creek Scenic River Advisory Committee.

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