By Roger Vance
With the dawn of each day we are all offered a fresh opportunity to chart our course, another shot to exercise our will, to reset and reshape our future. Just as individuals may one day awaken to an urgent need for a fresh start, we as a community are sometimes collectively confronted with an urgent need to seize the day and take action.
Loudoun’s leaders and citizens are poised to make choices that will determine the literal shape of its future and the landscape that will be left for generations to come and the need for a fresh start and urgent action is upon us. The question is a fundamental one, either the remaining open spaces, productive farmlands, mountain vistas, rural heritage and historic sites of western Loudoun are community assets worth saving—or they are not.
No one gets a pass on this one, the legacy we leave will belong to all of us.
What will be the legacy we choose? Will it be that when we had the opportunity, we were apathetic and unable to act—acquiescing to the mantra of the inevitable? Or will it be that we chose to be bold and innovative to control our destiny. Will it be that we quietly succumbed, unable to coalesce or find consensus, hobbled by orthodoxy or bureaucratic process? Or will it be that all of us—elected officials and county planners, landowners, developers, conservationists and citizens chose to forge common sense solutions?
As this summer fades away and we fall into an intense political season, now is the time for all of us who cherish and hold dear the opportunity of preserving the resources and heritage of rural western Loudoun to step it up and to act. What is required now—from all quarters public and private—is bold, creative, courageous and decisive leadership.
As we did a number of years ago in Hillsboro with a “summit” to start action on the town’s traffic-calming project, we are now calling for all parties to come together to drive concrete action for the conservation of rural western Loudoun. Just as we were able to forge broad local and regional support from across the political spectrum to tackle Rt. 9—an effort frequently dismissed and often consigned to the “never going to happen” category—we can do the same in the effort to save rural western Loudoun. But each day of delay works against us. We need all hands—public and private—on deck now prepared for action.
Fortunately, in the past few months we have seen a growing convergence of individuals and organizations attempting to build alliances dedicated to influencing policies that will be embedded in Loudoun’s Comprehensive Plan revisions as part of the overarching Envision Loudoun process. We’ve also seen an awakening among leaders to some of the little-used tools to conserve farms and open land that currently do exist—and a willingness to explore their deployment.
Most important, we’ve seen an initiative by Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tony Buffington for Loudoun to step up to the plate to materially enhance the ability of landowners to preserve their land through conservation easements—and ultimately save hundreds of millions in tax dollars required to support and serve new residential subdivisions in western Loudoun. While it is a modest measure at its outset, the Buffington initiative deserves full-throated support among the land conservation community. This proposal should serve as a much needed stimulus for these organizations to likewise step up their game and take a much more proactive, coordinated and creative approach to helping the less affluent farmers and landowners find a path to conservation easements.
Conversely however, we are also seeing disturbing indications that the pressure for expansion of suburban development in the county’s current Transition Policy Area and Rural Policy Area is gaining momentum. And, while the Envision Loudoun process ostensibly leaves the existing rural policies intact, the proposed new language to buttress those existing policies and statements supporting land conservation has been considerably weakened.
But more critically, the current rural area zoning policies permit the build out of more than 7,500 new homes, primarily in the northern sector of western Loudoun. Thus the urgency—now—for a fundamental shift in course and emphasis, a realignment of thinking that respects the value of landowner investments and their rational desire for economic security while at the same time endorsing and embracing the direct fiscal benefits to taxpayers of minimizing residential development in the rural west.
We need a change of course that energetically and unequivocally supports the expanding rural economy as a keystone complement to the high-tech urban environment that will emerge in eastern Loudoun. Just as Loudoun invests in incentives to attract top businesses to the tech corridor in the east, we need to find ways to incentivize farmers to farm, small rural businesses to thrive and large landowners to conserve their land in the west. Likewise we need to work with the development community to create innovative initiatives that will directly support a rural reserve in the west in exchange for higher urban densities in the coming new Silver Line communities.
To do these things requires leadership. Who will step forward? To find the answer, we must all ask our public officials, business leaders—and ourselves—one simple question: Are the remaining open spaces, productive farmlands, mountain vistas, rural heritage and historic sites of western Loudoun community assets worth saving—or are they not?
Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View from the Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.