Town Leaders Raise Concerns About Loudoun’s Comprehensive Plan Work Patrick Szabo 9/28/18
Mayors, planning commissioners and staff members of Loudoun’s towns met with the Loudoun County Planning Commission on Thursday to express their concerns about the county’s ongoing work to rewrite its comprehensive plan.
The new plan represents in some ways a dramatic departure from the county’s current comprehensive plan. But, while county policies in the rural west remain in some ways unchanged, the Coalition of Loudoun Towns found serious concerns.
“The draft includes several areas of grave concern that, if implemented, will jeopardize the continued success of our rural area,” said a statement from the Coalition for Loudoun Towns read by Hillsboro Mayor Roger Vance.
The coalition’s letter—coupled with detailed individual responses to the plan from each town—raised five chief areas of concern: The elimination of most policies relating to cooperative planning between the county and town governments, particularly joint land management areas around some towns; increased development density in the Transition Policy Area between rural west and suburban east; possibly releasing towns’ control of water and sewer systems where they serve people in joint land management areas, where towns sometimes charge higher out-of-town rates; the lack of specificity on individual towns in the plan; and an “overall weakening of protections for the transition and rural policy areas.”
Joint land management areas faced a challenge in 2007 when the Town of Purcellville sued to prevent the county from building Woodgrove High School outside that town. Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne ruled that despite the Purcellville Urban Growth Area Management Plan adopted by county supervisors and the Purcellville Town Council in 1995, the town did not have authority to control land use outside its borders. Despite the county having final authority on land use decisions outside town limits, including in joint land management areas, they have persisted as a voluntary cooperation.
Some of the towns’ concerns, said county Assistant Director of Planning and Zoning John Merrithew, are already being addressed. County staff members are working on a new draft of the plan, expected next week, that Merrithew said will reintroduce individualized town narratives and policies.
Battle over the Transition Policy Area
When the county’s current general plan was updated in 2001, it created the Transition Policy Area to serve as “a separation between the suburban and rural policy areas.” It has become a defining feature of Loudoun’s land use planning. It covers about 36 square miles, and divides the county from north to south around Leesburg and runs along the county’s southeastern border.
It has also been a key battleground in the county’s work to rewrite its comprehensive plan. While many in the west see it and its western border—the “urban growth boundary”—as an important buffer against suburban sprawl into the county’s rural areas, a stakeholder steering committee and the planning commission have recommended allowing increased development in the area.
In the transition policy area, said Round Hill Mayor Scott Ramsey, the county is “sending a signal” when it decides whether to allow more development or push its boundaries west.
“How you make your decisions about how do you hold the line, where do you make specific adjustments, who do you make adjustments to benefit—that sends a signal,” Ramsey said.
While towns leaders were united on the importance of the Transition Policy Area to protecting the west from suburban sprawl, the debate brought out divisions on the county planning commission.
Some commissioners argued that Transition Policy Area was a failed policy, or no longer relevant. Commissioner Jeff Salmon (Dulles) pointed to housing demand estimates that exceed the county’s remaining room for growth in eastern Loudoun.
“I think where there’s a disconnect is if you realize that the experts are telling us that the housing’s coming,” Salmon said. “You’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do.” He added if “you don’t allow it one area, it’s going to be like squeezing a balloon. It’s going to go to another area, and that’s already happening today, and that’s why you’re getting the development out in the Rural Policy Area.”
Commission Vice Chairman Fred Jennings (Ashburn) said a Board of Supervisors decision to extend central water and sewer service to the area was “tantamount to saying ‘develop.’”
“I appreciate the desire to want to hang onto it, but I’m also asking people to recognize that it isn’t as relevant today,” Jennings said.
“There are a significant number of minority opinions on our Planning Commission that would not agree with the point of view that you just heard,” said Commissioner Eugene Scheel (Catoctin). He referenced a controversial vote to allow a data center complex in the Transition Policy Area in a wooded parcel along Goose Creek: “I would like to point out that the initial vote against that—or against the data centers in the transition area—was 4-5 with the Planning Commission, and 4-5 with the Board of Supervisors.”
And Commissioner Kathy Blackburn (Algonkian) reiterated her view that the Transition Policy Area is meant for development.
“The transition policy area was not meant to be a buffer,” Blackburn said. “It was meant to be a holding area for further development.”
County staff members at the meeting declined to confirm that interpretation.
Ramsey pointed out that in public input sessions on the comprehensive plan, the Transition Policy Area has enjoyed strong support and “when the public has been consulted on the topic of the Transition Policy Area, they find it to be wildly successful.”
“You need to ask yourself, who is it broken for, who is it not working for, and are those my constituents?” Ramsey said.
Vance also raised concerns about taking a purchase of development rights program off the books. The Loudoun County government currently has a program to buy development rights, protecting those properties from future development, but the program is unfunded and unused. The new comprehensive plan removes references to that plan.
The Loudoun County Farm Bureau recently passed a resolution in support of a purchase of development rights program, supplemented by matching state funding.
Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Alaina Ray said the next draft of the plan is expected out by the end of next week.