In Sprint to the Finish, Planning Panel Wrestles with Rural Handcuffs

Since the summer of 2016, a 26-member committee has gathered around a table in the County Government Center at least once or twice a month to hammer out a new community development vision for Loudoun over the next two decades.

The Envision Loudoun process started with a gaggle of consultants with long résumés in community planning, public engagement and technical analysis and a schedule that called for the new plan to be written and adopted in 18 months.

Weeks were spent gathering public input, recording thousands of comments memorialized in online spreadsheets. Months were spent creating and wordsmithing the new comprehensive plan’s broad mission statement and goals. Countless hours were spent urging members to embrace modern planning concepts and eschew the cumbersome, detailed style of General Plan documents that have guided Loudoun’s leaders through three decades of rapid growth.

Twenty months later, the consultants are gone and county supervisors are pressing for more deliberative progress to be made.

By June, the finished plan will be in the hands of the Planning Commission. The committee’s work will be done.

Last week, the committee received the first draft of the one of the chapters in the plan, 13 pages setting the land use policies for the 250,000-acre Rural Policy Area. On Monday, the committee got its first glimpse of the nearly 70-page Transportation chapter that will replace the 325-page Countywide Transportation Plan. Next week, three other chapters will be presented and the group is slated to decide whether the plan should include the possibility of another Potomac River Crossing. Within six weeks, the committee’s final draft has to be ready for a round of public input sessions.

At some point, the results of fiscal and transportation modeling that illustrate the long-term impact of the growth policies hammered out by the panel will be presented—but that information won’t come in time for the committee to make any substantial changes to its work.

Committee members don’t doubt that the deadline will be met, but many are less confident that the final project will meet the expectations they held when the project launched.

As the group sprints to the finish line, a new—and unexpected—concern has emerged.

Early in the Envision Loudoun process one principle had near unanimous agreement: No one would tamper with the Rural Policy Area. County leaders, conservationists and most developers publicly agreed that nothing would be done undermine efforts to preserve the countryside or to hamper the growth of the rural economy with its farms wineries, breweries, wedding venues and tourist attractions.

Recently, some of rural Loudoun’s most vocal defenders—including Stakeholder committee member Al Van Huyck, of the Loudoun Preservation and Conservation Coalition, and Malcom Baldwin, a former member of the county’s Rural Economic Development Council—have raised concerns that the rural policies that supervisors want to lock in won’t adequately sustain the countryside conservation in the decades ahead.

An ad hoc committee of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition has published “Suggestions and Recommendations for Building a Sustainable Rural Community.” The report examines the threats to Loudoun’s scenic rural areas and sets proposes an action plan for countryside preservation land and improving the rural economy in a way that maintains the quality of life for current residents.

Among their concerns are increasing conflicts between the growing number of rural businesses and their residential neighbors; inadequate regulatory oversight of rural businesses; that the clustered development option for rural subdivisions is failing to create open space that is being put to agricultural use; and that the policies don’t provide enough incentives of large landowners to turn away development offers. Without taking time to reevaluate the county’s planning policies and zoning rules, they warn, the amount of farmland—which has decreased from 200,000 acres in 1998 to 87,000 acres today—will continue to decline rapidly.

The current draft of the Rural Policy Area chapter includes only three new policies: to improve the clustered development rules, to support job training in agricultural careers, and to provide educational programs aimed at reducing conflicts between agricultural and non-agricultural uses.

On Monday, committee members expressed surprise that the updated transportation policies included few changes to the rural road network through the year 2040. Members noted that increased development in eastern Loudoun, the likelihood of more than 7,500 additional homes in the rural area, and continued growth in counties north and west of the county line will undoubtedly have significant impacts.

County planners said their hands were tied by supervisors’ direction to make no changes in the rural area.

“I feel like we’re just closing our eyes to the problem,” committee member Chad Campbell said.

Planning Commission Chairman Jeff Salmon (Dulles) and Planning Director Ricky Barber said they would weigh options for the committee to address the concerns.

4 thoughts on “In Sprint to the Finish, Planning Panel Wrestles with Rural Handcuffs

  • 2018-03-15 at 3:44 pm

    There is a very easy solution to this entire mess: Rename the old plan as the “New Plan” and stop any more work on trying to change it.

    • 2018-03-15 at 5:48 pm

      I’m afraid even that wouldn’t be enough to save Loudoun’s farms and rural scenery. The 7,500 new houses (a 60% increase over today’s number) is already allowed by the current zoning policies. If the building permits are issued, then the county will have no choice but to expand the roads (including “scenic byways” like Route 9) to accommodate all the new cars. No question, the result of that cycle is a suburb that goes all the way to the WV line.

  • 2018-03-15 at 5:06 pm

    By constraining the rewrite of the existing plan to only the Suburban Policy Area (i.e. Eastern Loudoun), the Board of Supervisors left out of the planning process 2/3 of the county’s lands. To me it seems ridiculous that the County can’t be treated as one entity with various types of property uses instead of 3 sub-counties. I fear that the august committee of experts will be reluctant to give up their time again to support such an effort with a Board that belittles their work and recommendations. Despite what some no-growth advocates spew out, my many observations of the Stakeholder Committee show a group that is intent on doing the right thing for the residents of Loudoun County. The several examples above are only a few of the many things discussed but dismissed because of the “handcuffs” on deliberations regarding the rural areas. Because of these manacles placed on the Committee by the Board, rural Loudoun will get exactly what they say that they don’t want: more snarled traffic, less open space and potentially more houses built by-right.

  • 2018-03-15 at 5:39 pm

    The real question is whether citizens in the eastern part of the county (who are the vast majority of the voters) want to preserve a rural landscape where they can safely ride their bikes, pick vegetables and fruit, and enjoy the fresh air and scenery. All of that is going away as a result of the current policies, which already make way for those 7,500 additional “by right” houses. If they are built, we can say goodby to Loudoun’s farms and scenery, because they will be gone soon. If people miss them, they will just have to get on the beautiful new roads and drive a few more hours west. Also, we can say goodbye to our tax dollars, because the cost to the county of providing the roads, schools, police, emergency response, and other public services required by the expanded suburban population will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course, a few developers and large landowners in the west will be much wealthier, so there’s that.

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