By Mitch Diamond
A special experience for Loudoun’s residents and neighbors is provided by the ambiance of many historic villages and the physical beauty of the surrounding 250,000 wooded and rural acres—the large majority of the county’s land area. In recent University of Virginia surveys, Loudoun’s residents named our rural landscape as a thing they love most about our county, and residents said the same thing in recent Envision Loudoun community meetings.
Beyond physical attraction, the rural economy, grounded in agriculture and tourism, provides significant economic vitality to Loudoun. Loudoun has the largest horse industry in Virginia and the largest winery industry. The special beauty and authentic history of rural Loudoun draws numerous visitors to our area—contributing strongly to our $1.6 billion tourism industry and supporting thousands of jobs. Further, our economic and business leaders have described our rural landscape as our county “brand,” our competitive advantage and the factor which more than almost any other attracts business leaders to all of Loudoun. And finally, taxes raised in rural Loudoun combined with the low demand for county provided services in these areas, makes rural Loudoun a significant positive contributor to county finances.
And, of course, the open space, forests and clear streams in rural Loudoun provide a source of clean drinking water, a habitat for hundreds of species of birds and animals and a needed green relief to the urban and suburban congestion in other places.
Rural Loudoun is a valuable, delightful, necessary asset, but it is not a simple thing to protect.
What we call rural Loudoun is complex, interconnected and interdependent. Each of its elements contributes to the whole—and each element thrives in the setting and economy provided by the whole. The lovely scenery, viewsheds and delightful country roads of rural Loudoun represent the combination of hundreds of farms, hundreds of miles of tree-lined rural roads, hundreds of private residences, thousands of acres of privately owned open space, woods and streams, hundreds of historic houses, barns and churches and multiple historic villages retaining the look and feel of their eighteenth and nineteenth century origins.
The nature of this rural landscape, our rural villages and our rural economy arises from the individual decisions made by individual owners and stewards of their own property. It depends on the decision of an individual farmer to continue to farm and not sell out to a property developer, by an individual property owner to restore a historic house or barn and garden and not move away, and by a county planning official to approve or disapprove the location of a data center or commercial operation in a sensitive location. It depends on the decision of an individual farm implement company to stay in business here, or close up, and by officials to widen, pave and forever change a country lane. An individual decision may seem modest in its effect, but each influences other decisions by neighbors, farmers, innkeepers, wineries and visitors, and whether beneficial or detrimental to the rural economy, the aggregate impact grows.
In this lovely landscape, size and scale matter. The economic vitality of rural Loudoun requires enough agricultural activity to justify needed support services and markets, enough equestrian activity so farriers, veterinarians and feed stores want to be here and people want to come to events, enough attractive landscape and lovely country roads so reaching the inn or tasting room or wedding venue or restaurant is a great experience, enough ground water so crops can thrive, and enough compatible neighborhoods and pristine views so people are comfortable making major investments in large residential properties.
If we start to lose the scale needed to sustain key agricultural businesses, or the beautiful views needed for tourism related businesses, or the landscape and neighborhood characteristics that attract stewards of our land, or our historic integrity that draws visitors, we can reach a tipping point. If we get one subdivision too many, one data center in the wrong place, one too many farmers selling out, one too many residential owners giving up and moving, one more horse farm lost, one more country road paved and straightened – then the scale and the character of this place is lost, the visitors dwindle, the remaining people are more likely to give up their businesses or their farms or their estates and move elsewhere. The pace of inappropriate residential development and incompatible commercial activity will accelerate. And then the spell will be broken, the totality gone, only memories remaining. And when it is lost, all of Loudoun will suffer, as we lose our unique characteristic and become just one more place.
It is not enough to love our rural ambiance, and say so in broad statements of intention and mission. It is the small decisions on individual situations, properties and applications that collectively preserve or lose our rural landscape.
Our county government has a critical role in this preservation. We need a combination of thoughtful incentives and appropriate regulations to influence these multiple private decisions. And, in government itself, we need to ensure that we have the specific goals, policies, training and decision criteria to guide individual licensing and approval decisions. It is important that Loudoun’s political and business leaders recognize and understand the sensitivity of this critical asset to individual decisions and reflect that understanding in the policies they establish, the decisions they make and the guidance they give to members of their organizations. Ambiguous goals, vague policies, easily granted exceptions and approval of inappropriate individual applications will add up to long-term disaster for Loudoun.
And we, the residents of Loudoun, need to be sure we make our own voices heard, participate in public sessions and take advantage of opportunities to speak out. We are all in this together, but we have to take individual responsibility and individual action to retain this resource we all say we love.
With the right guidance, goals and incentives, and with our active participation, these myriad small decisions will aim in the right direction and we will preserve this valuable resource—and will allow Loudoun to retain its unique character and competitive advantage for generations to come.
[Mitch Diamond, a retired businessman, lives on an historic farm in Unison. He is a member of the executive committee of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, and on the Loudoun County Heritage Commission. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Coalition. To learn more about the organization or to participate in the Rural Roads Initiative, go to loudouncoalition.org.]