After months of public input and data gathering, members of the special committee charged with drafting policies to guide Loudoun’s development for decades to come are sharpening their pencils.
As the Board of Supervisors-appointed stakeholder steering committee prepares to write the guidelines that will form the county’s new comprehensive plan, some observers are worried that most of the 26 members favor development. The fears are at least partly rooting in the panel’s recent discussions of reports claiming Loudoun faces a significant housing shortage unless more land can be made available for development.
Don Goff is one of those concerned. He’s a member of the Transition Area Alliance, an activist group that opposes increased development in the central Loudoun area designated as a lower density buffer between the east and west.
“All the Board of Supervisors said, and Chair [Phyllis J.] Randall has said is, ‘we’re not going to screw with the rural area,’” Goff said. “But I see a move to either do away with the transition policy area or to change the zoning laws within Loudoun County that will allow much more increased density of housing as you push forward to the west.”
Supervisors—especially Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge), whose district includes the majority of transition policy area—have pledged in strong terms to defend that area.
And, as Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) pointed out at a recent county board meeting, “we’re not just the last resort on the comprehensive plans—we’re the only resort.” Supervisors will be the ones who ultimately vote on any new plan. The stakeholders committee and Planning Commission can only make recommendations.
But Goff sees a danger in those recommendations. He lives in Willowsford, off Braddock Road, and worries about packing more housing in. Even his neighborhood, he acknowledged, was greeted with skepticism by some people who lived in the area.
“The transition policy area offers great benefit to the suburban area and the rural area in terms of water sources and in terms of recreation,” Goff said. “And to pave it over with houses and concrete and blacktop actually injures the suburban area. And the next shoe that will drop will be, OK, let’s move into the rural area.”
Not so, say members of the committee.
‘We Just Have Scratched the Surface’
Among the 26 members of the committee, two explicitly represent building interests: The Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, and NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association. Several more represent business interests to a greater or lesser extent, such as the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, the Dulles Area Association of Realtors, and the county’s economic development advisory boards.
Among the membership, five work in land development. Another four work for consulting firms serving developers. They share the table with nine supervisor-appointed citizen representatives and two planning commissioners, as well as representatives from the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Loudoun Preservation and Conservation Coalition, and other interests such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, Northern Virginia Parks, Visit Loudoun, and the Washington Airports Taskforce.
“The first thing that’s really important to understand is the stakeholder committee was set up by the Board [of Supervisors],” said Al Van Huyck, who chaired the Planning Commission during the county’s last comprehensive plan review 16 years ago. This time around, he represents the Loudoun Preservation and Conservation Coalition on the stakeholders committee.
“All of what we say are the developers are actually representing groups that were invited by the board to participate,” Van Huyck said. “So it wasn’t like they forced their own way into the committee. They were invited. And so the fact that they’re there is perfectly fine, because the private interests of development should have a voice.” Van Huyck said many of the same interests were invited to participate in writing the county’s current comprehensive plan.
Jeff Salmon, current chairman of both the Planning Commission and the stakeholders committee, agreed. He said he feels the committee is balanced.
More to the point, he said, the committee has only just begun serious policy work. Much of the committee’s time in the previous months has been getting everyone up to speed on the history and current state of Loudoun planning and development, he said.
“We have just scratched the surface of revisiting the transition policy area,” Salmon said. “We have had one half-hour segment on the transition policy area, and that’s really about it.”
Any room full of land-use experts is almost certainly going to include people who work in the field—meaning, in large part, developers and consultants. Salmon also defended the membership, giving the example of Bowman Consulting principal and Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance representative Packie Crown.
“She’s a former Loudoun County staff employee, she does work for an engineering firm and, yeah, her engineering firm represents developers, but she has a very good grasp of all sides of the argument,” Salmon said. “She’s on the Zoning Ordinance Action Group, and she understands the environmental concerns and the desire to protect certain areas of the county.”
Crown hasn’t yet returned a message asking for comment.
And Todd Pearson, who wears two hats as both the representative of the Economic Development Advisory Commission and vice president of real estate development firm B.F. Saul Company, said “I don’t think that just because you work for a developer, or that you are a developer, means that you necessarily are going to support development.” He also pointed out the diverse interests on the stakeholders committee, including the nine citizen representatives.
Transition Policy Area in Transition?
The discussion on the transition policy area may have just begun in the stakeholders committee, but it’s been decades long in the county.
“The board has stated that for the most part, and I’m paraphrasing, that the rural policy area is pretty much off limits,” Salmon said. “They don’t want to put a bunch of houses in the rural policy area. I think that is a very wise decision, and I don’t have the expectation that we’re going to recommend anything … that changes that.”
Buffington, for his part, declined to be interviewed, but relayed a statement by email, saying he supports the transition policy area, which he said “is intended to afford unique development opportunities within Loudoun County at intensities greater than those typically permitted in the [rural policy area.]”
Buffington has said he will oppose increased densities in the transition area. “That said,” he added, “some portions of the [transition policy area] have already been approved for, or built to, [suburban policy area] standards and I realize that a portion of those areas will likely be updated as part of our Comprehensive Plan Update to reflect that unfortunate reality.”
“I think it’s something we need to look at,” Salmon said. “Maybe the recommendation is to make some changes to it, maybe the recommendation is not to make changes to it. But to not look at it at all, I think, is a silly exercise.”
He also sees the pressure to build in the transition area, particularly after a somewhat controversial study from George Mason University predicting a housing shortfall in the county.
“There’s a lack of land in the suburban policy area, and you have this big housing need that we’re seeing,” Salmon said. He noted the debate over how accurate the GMU study’s predictions will be, but every study of housing demand in the county predicts it will continue to grow. Salmon said there just isn’t enough room left in the suburban policy area for those homes.
“What you’re hearing at the stakeholders committee is, I don’t think those houses are going to fit in the suburban policy area,” Salmon said. “Well, where do you want to put them, in the rural policy area?”
Pearson, too, said it’s an important conversation, although no viewpoint yet dominates. And the stakes for getting it right are high.
“We have to understand that we’re a region that grows by 3,000 to 6,000 homes per year, and that’s really the lifeblood of our economic development,” Pearson said. “And in order for us to continue economic development in the county, we’re going to have to create those environments that attract businesses, and that has a lot to do with the people. The people that live in those homes are your shoppers, they’re your workers, they’re the lifeblood of economic development.”
Without a variety of housing, he said, the county will struggle in its continuing work to diversify the economy beyond federal contracting and data centers. He said it’s hard to attract new employers to a place with one of the region’s highest median incomes, high housing costs, and low unemployment. Employers need to find employees.
“It all ties back into housing,” Pearson said. “And I think it’s a very important, fruitful discussion, and look—I’m not even made up on what the right thing is.”
People like Don Goff, who worry about where those houses are going to go, will be watching that discussion very closely.
“I just wanted to throw a wrench in the mechanism to say, OK, something’s not right here, and I’m very concerned about it,” Goff said.
The county will host a second round of Envision Loudoun workshops, where Loudoun residents and workers can give the stakeholders committee their view on comprehensive plan. Those workshops have not yet been scheduled, but will be held sometime in June.
More information is available at Envision-Loudoun.org.