By Roger Vance
Loudoun County is approaching a fork in the road. The path we choose to follow, as we near the end of the second decade of the 21stcentury, will determine the future that awaits generations to come. On the horizon in one direction the outlines of some of the shapes of our future are coming into focus. But what we cannot yet see is what awaits us behind that next curve, beyond that next ridge.
What we need to know, however, is that there is nothing inevitable about what lays ahead. It is within our power and it is our responsibility to shape our future.
The ambitious Comprehensive Plan revision process has reached a critical juncture with the release of a first draft for public comment. Within that plan is a clear roadmap for the development of a modern, 21st-century urban landscape for the eastern reaches of our county, which will become the home for tens of thousands of future residents. These new Loudouners will be integral to the innovative industries that are reshaping our lives and driving the unparalleled growth of wealth in the region. In planning and building dense modern urban enclaves along the Silver Line, it is incumbent upon us to ensure it is done right. Their contributions to the whole must outweigh their burdens, their environmental and social impacts must be minimized, their existence must be harmonized within the milieu of a vital historic and agricultural region—which itself must be embraced, protected and honored as an priceless asset we all share.
And we must understand that while we can build “urban,” we can’t build “rural.” Further, as we have seen during the past century, urban can be and is frequently “renewed” to overcome past mistakes or to altogether remake a city.
On the other hand, once rural is gone, it is gone, and unrecoverable. The mistakes made there are mostly permanent.
By design, the county’s Rural Policy Area was sealed shut during the review process and ostensibly remains untouched in the current draft Comprehensive Plan revisions. The decision to do so was primarily defensive, driven by apprehension that the mere opening of the RPA would lead to attempts to loosen hard-fought protections. Given the ongoing attempts to alter and encroach into the Transition Policy Area, the wisdom of that decision is validated. The TPA should remain inviolate; to remain as it was designed to be the buffer between suburban/urban and rural Loudoun.
Even though the Rural Policy Area remains “as is” in the current draft plans, there remains an existential threat to rural Loudoun in the potential for building “by-right” some 7,500 homes. Further, zoning and land-use policy decisions beyond the reach of Comprehensive Plan restrictions can lead to the types of developments and facilities that would unquestionably damage the integrity of our rural areas.
We stand at a point in time that—for generations to come—will be seen as either the decisive moment of bold vision and resolve—or of feeble capitulation and surrender. Will it be seen as the moment in which we chose to allow the benefit for all to be trumped for the benefit of the few? Or will this be the moment when we seized the opportunity to act for the greater good today and far into the future?
The road we choose will likely not have an exit ramp. We are all on the spot for this one. Passivity is not an alternative. Our choices need to be guided by fundamental principles from which we cannot waiver.
It is to the mutual benefit of the Loudoun of today and tomorrow, east and west, to aggressively and unequivocally choose the road that will preserve, protect and ensure the sustainability of the remaining rural swath of our county, its farmlands, open spaces and wooded mountainsides. Just as the nation, cities and counties invest billions in urban renewal and actively seek to entice and encourage revitalization, we must invest in rural renewal by using all the tools we have (and if we don’t have them, create them!) to encourage and incentivize our farmers and large landowners to continue farm and protect the rural lands.
This is, quite simply, a time for proactive, dynamic leadership, leadership working for the benefit the whole, east and west. And that leadership cannot wait, as every approval to drop suburban subdivisions onto fertile farmland, to build a cell tower on a ridgeline, to turn rural roads into highways, or build towering indoor recreational facilities on bucolic pastureland, will steer us down the road to surrender.
However, the opportunity to work together, to recognize and leverage the extraordinary mutual benefits of an authentic rural reserve at the doorstep to our “new Loudoun” awaits us.
All of our hands are on this wheel. Which way will we go?
Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View From The Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.