The Board of Supervisors narrowly voted to appoint conservation advocate Maura Walsh-Copeland to a zoning advisory committee that critics have said is dominated by development interests.
With more than 40 advisory committees, the Board of Supervisors typically makes multiple appointments at every business meeting—usually unanimously and without debate. But last week, supervisors cast an unusual 5-4 vote to appoint Walsh-Copeland to the Zoning Ordinance Action Group, which was created in 2012 to advise on regularly updating the county’s zoning rules.
“The board created the Zoning Ordinance Action Group with the express purpose of making Loudoun more business-friendly,” said second-term Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who served on the board that created the committee. “… We had a reputation of not being terribly easy to work with.”
“For a long time I felt that the committee was unbalanced in favor of development, with basically no representation from a preservation or quality of life for residents aspect or perspective,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), who nominated Walsh-Copeland. “And so I want to do something about that.”
Walsh-Copeland, a management consultant, was recommended by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. She was selected for the appointment over civil engineer Matthew Lawrence, a member of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association who had support from the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. She replaces outgoing building industry association representative Kevin Daniel—which irked some supervisors. Letourneau said it was only “logical” that one building industry association member replace another.
“NVBIA is literally the most impacted of any industry organization, or any organization at all, for the type of zoning ordinance changes that can be made or pushed through on [the Zoning Ordinance Action Group, or ZOAG],” Letourneau said.
While the committee’s bylaws refer to several organizations by name and invite them to recommend appointees, no organization has a guaranteed seat at the table.
“We didn’t specifically create slots, but in practice, that’s what we’ve done,” Letourneau said. “So each of those organizations that are specifically called out in the bylaws has been given a spot on ZOAG.” He agreed the committee could use more diversity, but said it has representatives from “a number of what would be more considered anti-growth organizations.”
“Ultimately, ZOAG only makes recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, and we have to enact them,” Letourneau said. “It still goes through a very thorough vetting process, including public hearings.” He pointed to the county’s new registry for short-term residential rentals, which began as a recommendation from the panel. That change prompted a vigorous debate among hotel interests, Airbnb hosts, and supervisors while they worked out the details.
The Zoning Ordinance Action Group consists of 15 members, almost all from development and business interests. Only one member, Gem Bingol, explicitly represents a conservation organization, the Piedmont Environmental Council. Buffington said Walsh-Copeland won’t change the votes coming out of the committee, but “at least it’s going to make them listen to what she has to say.” He called that “a gigantic step in what I feel was the right direction.”
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) cast his vote for Walsh-Copeland—and was said to be the swing vote on the board. He said he “had more phone calls than the usual confirmation for someone on a board, I could put it that way.”
“ZOAG’s work product for us so far this term has been pretty one-sided, and it’s just because of the way it’s set up,” Meyer said. “I obviously think that one of the reasons ZOAG was put together was to try to get pro-business regulations in there, but at the same time I think it’s good to provide a space as far as people wanting to provide green space.”
“I honestly, seriously don’t think this is a deal,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), who also voted for Walsh-Copeland. Six committee members have terms expiring in September; Randall said one of those new appointments would be a Northern Virginia Building Industry Association member.
Walsh-Copeland is not entirely a newcomer to the group. She has attended meetings before—including presenting the results of a study she prepared for the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition.
“I do give Supervisor Buffington credit for asking the right questions about balance and quality of life for residents back in 2016, and give credit to the coalition for hiring me to answer those questions,” Walsh-Copeland said. And that study led to her new seat on the committee.
Her name has come up for appointment before, but at that time supervisors were not sure whether the committee’s bylaws required that appointees come from certain organizations. She said her views and votes in the committee will depend on the subject at hand.
“I’m not an environmental engineer or a historian, so I wouldn’t really peg myself that way,” Walsh-Copeland said. “It’s really looking at the overall sustainability of the community.”
Buffington, Randall, Meyer, and Supervisors Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) voted for Walsh-Copeland. Letourneau and Supervisors Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin), Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) and Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) voted for Lawrence.