As state legislators gear up for the General Assembly session beginning in January, many of Loudoun’s representatives in Richmond met with county leaders Tuesday to talk about Loudoun’s agenda for 2017.
With only a few hours with most of Loudoun’s elected leaders in one room, the lunch meeting ran through a whirlwind of immediate and long-term goals and policies for Richmond.
Loudoun’s elected representatives are unanimously opposed to the General Assembly’s new restrictions on localities’ ability to negotiate with developers, but don’t expect a pushback this year.
“We’re just going to let this kind of incubate for this session,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) during a meeting between the Board of Supervisors and members of Loudoun’s state legislative delegation. “We had not planned on putting any amendments forward. Our biggest issue is not losing any ground.”
Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-31) said that was a “prudent” decision.
“Even if we would try to be helpful, we would need data,” Favola said. “We would need to make an argument, and you guys have not lived with it long enough to see the impacts. … Whenever you open up a piece of legislation, there’s the potential of more harm being done.”
Favola also advised the county to form a coalition with business interests to make a more persuasive case to other state legislators.
In the meantime, the county has a workaround.
Loudoun’s county attorney and the planning department have said the General Assembly’s legislation would make it too risky for the county to negotiate proffers, effectively shutting down an important tool in keeping up with the explosive growth. The workaround takes advantage of an exception in the law by creating small area plans around each of the county’s three future Metro stations. Those plans would cover most of the county’s eastern suburban policy area, where most of the county’s development occurs.
Jeff Gore of Hefty, Wiley and Gore PC, the firm that lobbies for the county at the General Assembly, warned that even that workaround may come under attack.
“We’ve had conversation with the proponents of the bill from last year, and they are keeping a very close eye on what Loudoun is doing,” Gore said. “And they are considering legislation to prevent that.”
Supervisors again pointed out that the state’s proffer legislation prevents even voluntary agreements with developers, such as construction of a Brambleton library, which Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) described as a “win-win-win.”
“It benefited the developer in a very big way, because that library goes right in the center of the Brambleton Town Center,” Buona said. “And the developer realized the foot traffic it was going to generate around all the businesses he was trying to attract.
Many members of the state delegation were receptive to the idea of fighting back when the county is ready.
“I’d be very interested in any specific amendment that you would like to propose,” said Sen. Dick Black (R-13). “I think the change that was made was an overreach.”
Airbnb: ‘A level playing field’
Visit Loudoun President and CEO Beth Erickson told the delegation about her organization’s concerns about Airbnb, which she said constitutes a massive, unregulated, and untaxed industry. She said she would like to focus attention not on homeowners renting out an extra room occasionally, but on hosts who regularly rent out many rooms and don’t live on the property.
“I do just want to remind everybody that Airbnb, if they stall and get nothing, they win,” said Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-32), pointing out that no change in the law means Airbnb may continue business as usual, and the county will likely have to look at a compromise.
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run), who proudly touts his millennial status, said he has heard a lot of negative feedback from people in his generation about the way Loudoun leaders talk about Airbnb.
“Airbnb is also serving a lot of millennials who frankly can’t afford hotels,” Meyer said. “We talk about affordable housing; this is affordable travel.”
“There has to be a level playing field,” said Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “If a hotel has to have a sprinkler system after a certain number of occupants, well, if we’re going to put 18 people in this mansion, then those same rules should apply.”
“I’m all for technology, but I don’t like when technology has a certain arrogance that says, we’re really hip, and we’re really cool, and your antiquarian rules don’t apply to us,” said Del. J. Randall Minchew (R-10). “That’s what I saw with Uber, and that’s what I saw with Airbnb.” Minchew said Airbnb has pushed to become exempt even from local zoning regulations and covenants.
Rural broadband: ‘Eyes wide open’
“At least 70 percent of the world’s daily internet traffic goes through Loudoun, yet many people in western Loudoun County can’t even access it,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge), who is pushing for more broadband access and cell reception in the county’s rural west.
“I just want to make sure I ask this question out loud,” Greason said of the board’s request to support measures that would promote rural broadband access.. “If we get this passed, is there going to be a huge fight over cell towers in Western Loudoun?”
Greason said he worried about the state delegation using up all its influence to bring broadband into western Loudoun, only to have those efforts stopped by resistance at the county level.
“I just want to make sure we go into this with our eyes wide open,” Greason said.
Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) said a previous cell tower application did indeed face resistance, but was passed, and he supports Buffington’s efforts.
“I can tell you that what I hear most often is, ‘I don’t want to have to go to Starbucks to help my kids with their homework,’” said Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
Hiring professional services: ‘A raw deal’
Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) repeated his call for a better way for the county government to contract for professional services.
“Right now, the way the local jurisdictions are required to procure professional service is not to the favor of the jurisdictions, and it is a raw deal for the taxpayer period,” Buona said.
Currently, and unlike construction contracts, the county cannot demand a binding price estimate from professional services firms such as consultants until it has already ranked all the bids for a particular job. At that point, it negotiates with only one bidder at a time, in the order of their ranking, and cannot go back to a higher ranked bidder once negotiations have fallen through and it has moved on to the next. Until then, the county sees only a nonbinding price estimate.
That, Buona said, means the county isn’t getting a good price.
Minchew pointed out that Loudoun has two representatives on the state subcommittee that handles procurement bills—himself and Del. James M. LeMunyon (R-67), who was not at the luncheon—but Jeff Gore, from the firm that lobbies for Loudoun in Richmond, said it would be an uphill fight.
“If you recall, a couple of years ago, the professional services sector tried to remove the nonbinding estimate,” Gore said, which would have left localities “totally operating in the dark.”
“We’ve already vetted this, with the (acquisition and expenses) guys in particular, and no surprise, they don’t support it,” Gore said.
“This one has the biggest potential of all of them on your list to be a Pandora’s Box,” warned Greason. “And you open it, and it goes the wrong way.”