By Roger L. Vance
Elections matter, a lot. When we make our ballot choices we are investing in the ideas and the leadership of those individuals the majority freely select. It is a distinct and awesome responsibility of a democracy’s citizens.
The informed and uninformed, the activists and the apathetic all have an equal vote. Each election however, has a built in corrective: the next election. At all levels of government it is not unusual to see the public’s sentiments take a dramatic swing in the “next” election that puts into power new leaders who are diametrically different from the old leaders, resulting in policy shifts that can have significant short- and long-term implications. Elections matter.
However, especially at the local level, sometimes citizens have a unique opportunity to influence the long-term policies of their communities in a manner that supersedes the outcomes of any particular election or series of elections. In Loudoun County, that “sometimes” is now. Not nearly as sexy or entertaining as a charged political campaign can be, these exercises in self-government are so deep in the weeds for most they are largely ignored. But the final product that emerges—a set of policies, guidelines and goals, a new Comprehensive Plan—will have significant impacts on the everyday lives and well being of citizens for decades to come.
A Comprehensive Plan is a requisite document or set of policy documents the Virginia code commands for each jurisdiction in the commonwealth. It represents the foundational vision for a community and forms the legal basis for policy direction and decisions made by elected officials on matters related to land use, economic development, transportation, public facilities and ultimately the entity’s growth and its citizens’ quality of life. Loudoun County’s Comprehensive Plan consists of its General Plan, Countywide Transportation Plan and various specific strategic and area plans. Although these living documents may be amended, policy makers and officials must adhere to the underlying philosophy and goals established by the plan until a new or revised plan takes its place.
Fortunately, in recognition of the critical importance of the Comprehensive Plan, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors have crafted a deliberate and inclusive 18-month process for the creation of a new county Comprehensive Plan, a roadmap whose impact will extend over the next two decades. The new plan will replace the current Revised General Plan, adopted in 2001. In what is one of the nation’s wealthiest, fastest growing and economically dynamic counties, the stakes are high and the outcomes highly anticipated by businesses, developers and investors from far beyond the county’s borders.
While this plan will, no doubt, shape, direct and possibly expand and propel what has been unparalleled growth in the increasingly urbanizing east, the new plan’s impact on the rural west is much less certain. What is certain is that in the course of developing this new plan will be the potential to invite the unalterable transformation of rural western Loudoun—or the opportunity to codify its preservation and ensure its long-term sustainability. Another certainty is that sustainability and preservation does not necessarily mean “nothing new,” rather it will require innovative thinking and doing. Perhaps alongside the array of wineries, farm breweries and boutique farms there may emerge a collection of culinary and arts destinations, recreational outfitters and accommodations, all accessible via a network of bike/pedestrian paths and trails.
The concerted and focused engagement on the part of western Loudoun citizens, beginning now, will be the key determinant of the direction and possibilities.
“Envision Loudoun” is the moniker for the ambitious program designed and orchestrated by the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning staff alongside the Board of Supervisors’ appointed Stakeholders Committee. The program’s intent is to maximize, from the outset, grassroots public participation in the Comprehensive Plan process. Kicked off in November, the first phase of the process consists of a series of workshops in which citizens can gather to learn about the process and the issues facing Loudoun, and provide their input and vision for the future of the county in small working groups. The first and only western Loudoun workshop was on Monday, Dec. 5, at Woodgrove High School and was attended by more than 200 area residents. Joining them and reasserting their commitment to rural Loudoun were County Chairwoman Phyllis Randall, Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tony Buffington and Catoctin District Supervisor Geary Higgins.
Comp plans matter, a lot. In addition to the county plan, each town has its own plan, including the county’s smallest, Hillsboro, where its first ever Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2004, has served as the catalyst for policies and subsequent actions leading to transformative projects coming to fruition in the next two years. Called out in that 2004 plan were a set of critical infrastructure projects that will address essential safety, health and quality of life issues, which in turn will ensure the long-term preservation and sustainability of one of Loudoun’s most unique historic assets.
Loudoun’s 2001 Revised General Plan creators deserve our praise and appreciation for their courage to insist on the existing plan’s emphasis on historic preservation and the development of a sustainable rural economy that encourages conservation of open spaces and discourages excessive residential development. The expanding and thriving agricultural-based rural economy in western Loudoun is a testament to their foresight 15 years ago.
The new Comprehensive Plan must fortify land use policies that will continue the rural protection of the old plan. Further, the new plan needs to assert a set of priorities and policies that places the highest value on preservation of mountainsides, ridgelines and viewsheds—the natural attractions that bring the visitors who in turn support agricultural, recreational and historic tourism-related businesses. Investments in traffic-calming, congestion mitigation, a network of pedestrian/bike paths connecting western Loudoun towns and existing regional trails will stimulate an economic development model that is dependent upon rural preservation and protection of environmental resources.
On Monday night, Western Loudoun turned out to voice its views in a big way. In the months ahead we must seize the opportunity and remain engaged and steadfast in shaping our future.
[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column appears monthly.]