Op-Ed: Cheri Conca, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy

Editor: Like many communities across the country, Loudoun County recently held a series of events, collectively dubbed Envision Loudoun, to gather public input for its forthcoming comprehensive plan. The plan will guide land use, housing and transportation for the next 20 years and beyond.

The results? The people voiced their vision for Loudoun’s future loudly and clearly, asking for policies that preserve natural resources, provide more parks, balance development with green space, and preserve and maintain natural landscapes. The input from the first two rounds of Envision Loudoun resulted in a draft planthat was released May 7. Although the plan is not legally binding, its contents will guide zoning ordinances, so it must include policies, strategies and actions to protect our irreplaceable natural assets. Unfortunately, the draft includes fundamental changes to the current plan that potentially pave the way for development interests to chip away at our environment:

  • The current comprehensive plan was one of the first in the country to feature green infrastructure as a key element, recognizing that a connected network of streams, trees, meadows, slopes, and wetlands function as a related system that should be protected and used as a basis for how and where development should occur.Unlike the current plan,the draft plan does not stipulate green infrastructure as the framework for guiding where and how development and redevelopment occurs.
  • The current plan’s174 green infrastructure policies have been reduced to just seven “natural resource” policies.
  • Environmental overlay districts, such as the limestone overlay district have been removed. Although the districts still exist in zoning regulations, without high level protection in our comprehensive plan, regulations are at risk of being challenged, potentially giving developers extraordinary flexibility in environmentally sensitive areas.
  • A watershed-based approach to land use planning has been dropped.
  • Interdepartmental and interjurisdictional coordination have been removed. These policies were put into place to ensure that all land use planning and development respect and preserve the holistic nature of the elements of our green infrastructure.

The Envision Loudoun websiteindicates that conservation may not be among the top priorities for the new plan: “The new comprehensive plan will outline policies for addressing Loudoun County’s most pressing issues, to include: Economic Development, Transition Area Policy, Residential Housing Choice and Diversity, Redevelopment/Reuse, Suburban Policy Area, Community Facilities and Supporting Infrastructure, Quality Development, Fiscal Management, along with other topics to be determined by the findings of the process…The new Comprehensive Plan will help to ensure growth occurs at a pace and in a pattern that is fiscally sustainable for the county.” It hard to understand how Conservation of Natural Assets” doesn’t make the top 10 list of most pressing issues. Fiscal sustainability is a desired outcome of planning for an expected continued high rate of growth. What about environmental sustainability and resiliency?

Over the next several months, the draft plan will be refined by the Planning Commission and then sent to the Board of Supervisors for approval. Although formal public input sessions have ended, there is still opportunity to weigh in for detailed, measurable policiesto conserve and enhance our green infrastructure via emails to Supervisors, letters to editors and public input at Board of Supervisors meetings.

We are fortunate to live in a wealthy, educated community; and we are growing fast. We need a plan that accommodates growth, while preserving the streams, forests, wetlands, and meadows that sustain us. By investing in conservation now, through sound policy, we can mitigate loss, damage and expense later. Our green infrastructure is every bit as important to our economy, public welfare and quality of life as are our roads, housing and commercial development. Many planning experts agree there should be a lengthy period of public debate prior to adoption of a new comprehensive plan. Loudouners need to keep that debate alive until we have a plan that sustains our green infrastructure for today’s residents and future generations.

Cheri Conca, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy

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