By Malcolm F. Baldwin
We have lost more than 66,000 acres of farmland in Loudoun since 1992, despite attempts by our 2000-2003 Board of Supervisors to protect the rural west. A far-from-ideal compromise by the following 2004-2007 board put an end to the last and best effort to control Loudoun’s rampant rural growth.
The county’s 2003 Zoning Ordinance amendments sought to protect farmland by establishing base densities of one house per 20 acres in the northwest AR-1 zoning district (including the Catoctin electoral district and some of the Blue Ridge district) and one per 50 acres in the southwest AR-2 district (mostly in the Blue Ridge district). But that down-zoning from earlier 3-acre density was the subject of a lawsuit filed by 200 landowners eager to sell their properties to developers, and it was invalidated by the Virginia Supreme Court in 2005 because of a (very technical) public notice inadequacy. That defect could easily have been corrected with a new public notice, but it was not; most members of the 2004-2007 board, elected with strong support from real estate and construction interests, preferred rural Loudoun to revert immediately to 3-acre zoning.
Thus 3-acre zoning prevailed from March 2005 to late 2006, a period of intense and widespread public debate in the county and of many hasty approvals of new subdivisions based on the 3-acre density. Then, responding to strong citizen pressure for rural preservation, in November 2006 the board finally passed new zoning based on a series of compromises. For the Catoctin (AR-1) District, it allowed clusters of up to four houses and one “rural economy” lot of 15 acres on each 20-acre parcel. For AR-2 in the rural south it established 40-acre zoning with one house per 10 acres.
What have been the combined results of three-acre zoning and the subsequent 2006 compromise?
Lacking more precise data on the impact of each zoning change, we can simply say that between 2002 and 2017, the Rural Policy Area added more than 5,500 new houses, growing from 7,000 to 12,653, and from 22,000 to 44,400 residents. Clearly, the county has not implemented a successful rural preservation strategy, yet our current supervisors, their Envision Loudoun consultants and Stakeholders’ Committee still assume that existing county policies will keep rural Loudoun rural; after all, one hears from some supervisors, our present and recent boards haven’t authorized any new housing developments beyond those allowed by-right under the 2006 zoning revisions. But many residents of the Rural Policy Area know better: business-as-usual, with our current clustering and other farmland policies, is simply failing to protect our rural environment from the projected housing increases and farm losses.
The AR-1 cluster provision’s capacity to maximize houses in tight clusters around one or more so-called rural economy lots per 20 acres has been a farmland disaster. For a sad example, one can look at one 300-acre subdivision in Waterford, with 89 houses, mostly on 1-2 acres, but also including six “rural economy” lots of 15-20 acres, each with a large house—and no evidence of any current farming activity. The development’s HOA permits only horses and chickens on these large lots, but so far there is no evidence whatever of these or other agricultural activities on these disingenuously named rural economy lots.
For each $1 the county receives in property taxes from a house in rural Loudoun, the county must pay an additional $0.62 to cover operating public school and public services. This figure does not include state road maintenance costs. Yet rural Loudoun businesses—traditional farms, vineyards, horse farms, etc.— produce more tax revenue for the county than they require in public services and infrastructure. In other words, saving rural Loudoun saves Loudoun money.
The USDA, in its latest (2012) survey, found the market value of Loudoun agricultural products to be $37 million annually in produce, hay, grain, berries, grapes, Christmas trees, berries, meat and other farm products. That figure has increased since, due to significant new production from small, specialty crops. But farmers get no economic return from the viewsheds they offer that attract tourists to our wineries, breweries and B&Bs. Tourists and suburban residents of eastern Loudoun visit the west for these products, and also simply for the rural beauty. (One farmer with a produce stand has said that he’d be a rich man if he had a dollar from every tourist admiring the view his farm provides.)
For most of Loudoun’s traditional farms that supply grain, hay and other needed produce to our equine and livestock industries, profit margins are low. These large, scenic farms remain vulnerable as older farmers retire, die or sell their land. Rising generations are looking for more remunerative careers. If we care enough to preserve our rural economy, we can help make farming more profitable by lowering tax costs—eliminating the property tax on farm structures, as a starter. We can create incentives for long-term leases, affordable financing for young farmer ownership, and provisions for farm product and livestock processing in Loudoun.
We can also resurrect the Purchase of Development program, de-funded on the first day of the 2004 incoming board’s tenure, on grounds that it was “welfare for the rich.” But that program supported 12 conservation easements totaling 4 square miles, including 1,200 acres of prime and secondary farmland (along with many other water quality, historic and scenic resources) and 900 acres of public access trails, at a county cost of $8.9 million.
As Duchess County, NY, and other rural jurisdictions around the country have done, Loudoun can also facilitate farmers’ donation of development rights to a land trust, joining with private land trusts to pay the up-front costs of lawyers, appraisers and surveyors that donors incur when seeking a conservation easement. The result: county cost savings from avoiding public service and public school operating costs caused by new houses.
If we look across the Potomac we’ll see how Montgomery County, MD, more than a decade ago, saved 55,000 acres of farms under its Tradable Development Rights program. It allowed farmers in the county’s agricultural reserve district to sell their housing development rights to a developer who would then be allowed to increase residential density in Bethesda. It’s a perfect program for us, given the need for increased density at Metro Stations. Again, it will save the county money from reducing housing growth. (Such a program exists in two Virginia counties.)
The point is, we have many policy tools available to apply—if there’s a political will to do so. But, the large campaign contributions given to many supervisors by real estate and construction interests over the years have been influential. So, too, is the complacency born of the notion, prevalent among county staff and within the Board of Supervisors even today, that rural zoning and other existing policies make rural Loudoun safe from development pressures. We can change these perceptions and the prevailing complacency with vigorous advocacy by those throughout the county who care about rural Loudoun’s long-range sustainability—and by a Board of Supervisors responding with new policy approaches.
Malcolm Baldwin is retired from a career in environmental law that included work with The Conservation Foundation and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. For the past 15 years of his career he worked and lived in developing countries to help protect their environment. He is a former member of Loudoun’s Rural Economic Development Council. He and his wife Pamela own WeatherLea Farm & Vineyard near Lovettsville.