As the county government writes the plan that will guide development in Loudoun for years to come, a small but dynamic new group has formed to protect the county’s farmland and open spaces.
Dubbed Save Rural Loudoun, the group is made up of a politically diverse set of people bound by a common concern about the course of development in western Loudoun. Among those is Soil and Water Conservation District Urban/Ag Conservationist and president of the Loudoun County Farm Bureau Chris Van Vlack, who said up until recently, western Loudoun has been buffered from development by the slowdown in the housing market since the 2008 recession began. But since then, he said, the economy has picked up.
“I think there was a feeling that if we’re going to protect agriculture in western Loudoun, preserve some critical mass of rural land, it’s got to be all hands on deck with the comprehensive plan,” Van Vlack said.
The first draft of the county’s next comprehensive plan is facing scrutiny at a number of public meetings starting this week, and much attention is being given to the new plan’s vision for urban-scale development along the Silver Line and for new mixed-use communities in eastern Loudoun. However, many people involved in conservation and agriculture worry the plan doesn’t do enough to protect the rural way of life in western Loudoun.
That includes another member of Save Rural Loudoun, Charles Houston.
“There are a lot of good words, but you get down into the details, and are there teeth behind those good words, or are there loopholes?” Houston said. “For example, affordable housing can either be something kind, to take care of people who are in need, or it can be a ruse by developers to let them get smaller lots, build small cheap houses, and make money that way. So which side is it?”
Van Vlack agreed.
“It has a lot of good language in it, and it has a lot of areas where, although there are sort of good feelings, there’s also a lot of words in there that provide a lot of wiggle room to somebody who maybe doesn’t have the best interests of the Rural Policy Area at heart,” Van Vlack said. “There needs to be action items in there, instead of just expressions of support for the rural policy area.”
But he said opening up the Rural Policy Area rules could backfire. He said development interests have a powerful influence in Loudoun’s government—including on the steering committee that shaped the first draft of the new comprehensive plan.
“They don’t live here, so it’s important that the people who live here have as strong of a voice as the folks who are sort of on the payroll to be at these meetings,” Van Vlack said. “And it’s tough, because unless you’re being paid to be there, you’re taking your own time, trying to shoehorn it into your day.”
Houston said groups like the Board of Supervisors-appointed Zoning Ordinance Action Group, the Envision Loudoun stakeholder steering committee that shaped the first draft of the new comprehensive plan, and the Planning Commission give developers more weight than they do to ordinary citizens.
“Government should be by the people, for the people, and this is like, by some people on the board for developers, and it just really makes the populist streak in me irate,” Houston said.
That makes revising rural zoning rules, which county supervisors instructed the steering committee not to do, a gamble.
“The worry is, if we open it up, a lot of the development interests are so well connected and powerful that we may end up in a worse situation than now,” Van Vlack said.
The group is not just about raising awareness, but specific ideas. Van Vlack raised the idea of a purchase of development rights program, which has been used in other localities and is on the books in Loudoun but has not been funded in years. He said that could permanently protect land without having to change zoning.
Houston said he expects the group to have a role in the 2019 Board of Supervisors election, pointing out which candidates might threaten the rural way of life in Loudoun and who might support it.
Save Rural Loudoun is not the first conservation-minded group in Loudoun, but its members say they want to have a particular focus.
“We thought there was a role for somebody who was focused just pretty much on farming and saving the open land, defining the things that keep the rural area looking the way it should look,” Houston said.
Houston said the group will be doing more to make itself heard, like more letters to the editor and advertising. And Van Vlack said members have been organizing meetings with county supervisors and their staff.
According to the Farm Bureau, Loudoun is home to more than 1,400 farms.
“We all come together in that we want to see open spaces and farmland protected in western Loudoun,” Van Vlack said.