Editorial: Beyond Zoning

The bevy of recent rural land purchases by the Kuhn family in western Loudoun clearly shows the important impact private conservation efforts can have. But, as the debate over the county’s new comprehensive plan has highlighted, it will take more than the dedication of one investor to forestall development of the countryside that county leaders have worked for decades to preserve.

Without out any legislative action, more than 7,000 homes can be built by-right in the rural area under the current rules—a fiscal folly. The proposed 2040 Comprehensive Plan doesn’t materially change that. In fact, there was little discussion during the past two years of the plan’s development of new actions that will be required to nurture and protect the enterprises that have kept thousands of acres from being carved up as housing subdivisions.

Policies that have promoted the establishment of scenic wineries, farm breweries, bed and breakfast retreats and niche farming operations have helped to maintain open land. However, they have not preserved open land. In most cases, there is nothing to prevent the landowners from closing up shop and building MacMansions instead. The zoning allows such housing developments. And, in the long term, there’s no assurance that these would be low-density subdivisions, as permitted under today’s zoning rules. Zoning is not an effective preservation tool; it can be undone with a single vote by the county Board of Supervisors. Put another way: Maybe the zoning restrictions will be maintained beyond the next election. Maybe they won’t.

The Stumptown Woods transaction is a better model. Conservation easements survive shifting political winds and boom-and-bust economic cycles. Easements are vastly more permanent than zoning. Property rights are protected.

Loudoun has policies supporting conservation easements; they even get a mention in the new comprehensive plan. However, it has been years since the county government actively employed that tool.

Meaningful involvement could be as simple as providing the legal support needed to write and record easements. That would offer a significant cost savings and remove a barrier faced by many conservation-minded property owners. At the other end of the scale, the county could reinstate a Purchase of Development Rights program that pays the owners of significant rural properties to protect that land. There should even be a discussion about establishing a special tax district assessment—maybe one just paid by rural residents and business—to fund such a preservation program.

Loudoun will continue to grow. There is a need to plan for more housing and for a variety of housing types. Those facts, however, don’t require county leaders to surrender decades of work to preserve the rural area. It requires them to work harder. Those living in Loudoun in 2040 will thank them for their efforts.

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