Before the emergence of the internet, before rocket engineers and genetic scientists set up shop in Loudoun, before
federal contractors moved beyond the Beltway and Tyson’s high rises, Dulles Airport fueled the county’s economy.
And it still does.
Since it opened as the nation’s most advance jetport five decades ago, Loudoun’s business and government leaders have worked hand in hand to promote its growth. They knew that jobs and economic opportunities would follow the increase in flights.
A fundamental element in that partnership has been county government’s support for regulations that buffered airport operations from encroachment of new homes. Overall, the pace of the industry’s growth may be dictated by factors such as competition and fuel prices, but those aren’t controlled by local governments. Zoning regulations are.
Loudoun’s policy to prohibit residential construction within the airport’s high noise zone is intended to protect the airport from complaints that have forced many other facilities across the nation to limit their operations. The rules were established when Dulles was a remote destination surrounded by, well, not much.
Even as development pressures increased on land around the airport, the county’s business and government leaders remained committed to that strategy. With the coming of rail, that has changed. For the first time, the citizen advisors on the county’s economic development panel and the Chamber of Commerce have joined with Realtors and developers in calling for the restrictions to be lifted. So far, supervisors say they’re not interested in making a change.
The county is embarking on a rewrite of its comprehensive plan and getting the airport noise policies right will be an important part of guiding development over the coming decades. The airport’s high-noise contours—the lines that determine where residential development is prohibited or is subject to higher construction standards—were last updated in the early 1990s. Those changes reflected the industry’s shift to quieter aircraft engines, but also examined the noise that would be generated by an airport running at full capacity.
Given the technological advances and the changes in travel demand over the past 30 years there’s reason to believe the noise level projections may be different today. A new study could find that the boundaries of the high-noise zone may be smaller, or it might affirm the outlook already on the books. Knowing the answer would be a part of any long-term planning exercise.
Supervisors are correct in defending the probation on new residences within the airport’s high-noise area. Unquestionably, that is an important land use and economic development policy. However, ensuring that they’ve drawn the line in the right location also is important. Now is a good time to take a new look.