After two years of work by a 26-member committee of special interest and citizen stakeholders, the effort to adopt a new comprehensive plan for the county is moving to the Planning Commission, with some hoping the panel will steer the work in a slightly different direction.
“We obviously were very grateful for the people who put in hours of volunteer work,” Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) said during the July 19 board meeting when the stakeholders’ final report was presented. “I do think that the process we set up for the stakeholders probably favored the special interests a little bit too much, and I think that it’s reflected in the document.”
Of the committee’s 26 members, 15 represented industry, conservation, and other groups. Among those, eight are involved in development directly or indirectly, such as through consulting or engineering. Nine more stakeholders were appointed directly by supervisors, of whom one, Lou Canonico—Meyer’s appointee—is involved in development as vice president of a consulting firm and a member of Northern Virginia Building Industry Association and NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association. The committee was chaired by planning commissioners.
Meyer pointed toward a recommendation to allow densities of eight to 24 units per acre in Old Ashburn, where in April 2017 supervisors voted to cap development at four units per acre.
“It’s just things like that that tell me that the interests that were represented on the stakeholders weren’t necessarily the community interests, and that’s what troubles me a bit,” Meyer said.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) worried that despite the plan’s intent to meet Loudoun’s modern development, the work is based on the financial impacts of Loudoun’s traditionally suburban development. He said that won’t work in the county’s urban areas.
“I think the problem is, the whole entire way that we formulated this was based on a different type of development,” Letourneau said.
It was a concern shared by Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). “We need to think about how people are living now, not how they lived 20 years ago,” Umstattd said.
Other supervisors were optimistic about the plan’s direction.
“I know there was a point in time maybe a year or so ago when we thought we had gotten off track, or we were foundering or something, and you all got us back on track,” Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) told county staff members.
“I personally believe we’ve come a long way,” said Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian). But she said she was concerned about discussions around policies in the county’s rural west: “When we did the original plan charter I thought all of us just kind of agreed, we just basically won’t touch western Loudoun.”
Randall said that’s not quite true.
“What we said was we don’t want to have the development, the residential development, in the west,” Randall said. “So it wasn’t ‘don’t touch the west at all,’ it was ‘what kind of protections do you want to put in the west.’”
The board passed little formal guidance on the rural west in 2016, that “Wholesale revisions or updates will not be required and any updates will be developed to strengthen and enhance the current set of successful and enduring policies applied in this area.”
Randall also defended the plan from Meyer’s concerns, arguing that neither developers nor conservation interests are completely satisfied with the plan. “That’s a pretty good indication that it’s a balance of what’s going on there,” Randall said.
Earlier in the meeting she had also defended the committee from what she saw as critical press coverage, saying “all the major papers have been pretty unfair to the stakeholders group.”
“The lift they had was a huge lift and lot of work,” Randall said. “It was never going to be done in 12 months, it was going to take two years to do just because it was so much work.”
In April 2016, supervisors unanimously adopted a charter for revising the comprehensive plan which would have seen the plan already done, in just 18 months. But work in the stakeholders committee stretched out, including after supervisors rolled planning efforts around the county’s future Metrorail stops into the committee’s work, by some counts doubling the workload. At the time, some supervisors said Metrorail-area planning could account for more homes and growth over the next two decades that all other areas of the county put together.
Deputy County Administrator Charles Yudd, the second-highest-ranking staffer in Loudoun’s government, was put in charge of Envision Loudoun work earlier this year with then-newly hired Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Alaina Ray as project manager after the committee’s previous staff liaison left Loudoun County government. At that time the Board of Supervisors put in place a new timeline to have the comprehensive plan review done in March 2019.
Today, the county’s comprehensive plan envisions 180,000 homes in Loudoun at full buildout. As of 2017, 133,000 of those had been built, with another 29,000 already approved and awaiting construction. That left about 18,000 more that could be built. The new plan, as written so far, would increase that figure to 33,000 more over the next two decades.
The plan also represents a rethinking of Loudoun’s planning, including a push for more flexibility in development, the first planning for urban areas in Loudoun, and the possibility of redeveloping some areas.
Although there remained differences among stakeholders committee members to the very end of their work, the comprehensive plan draft they produced got endorsements from all sides of the table from former stakeholders speaking at the Board of Supervisors meeting. Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation representative Al Van Huyck—who also served on the Planning Commission that wrote the current comprehensive plan in 2001—said it was “a major milestone.” Dulles Area Association of Realtors representative Lars Henriksen urged supervisors to support the result of two years and “countless hours of critical thinking.”
Supervisors were unanimous in their thanks for the work put in by the members of the stakeholders committee.
“We’re not done yet, we have a long way to do, but to this point you guys have done amazing work,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge).
The Planning Commission, which will forego its traditional August recess, will hold its first work session on the plan Thursday, Aug. 9, to be followed by a special Saturday session Aug. 11.