Planning commissioners started their work on the county’s new comprehensive plan Thursday night, and, while they have months of work ahead of them, they made it clear they won’t rush the project to meet a schedule set by the Board of Supervisors.
“We’re done when we’re done” was the sentiment expressed by commission Chairman Cliff Keirce (Broad Run) and broadly shared among his fellow commissioners.
“I don’t like the … tail wagging the dog here, that we have to have all these discussions in a very quick timeline because the board wants it by a certain time,” Keirce said. “I don’t think our job is just to get it done by certain date, I think it’s to look at the data, evaluate it and make a decision. And if that takes longer than the board’s artificially imposed timeline, then I’m sorry.”
The draft general plan, while slimmed down considerably from the current general plan, is 377 pages. It is the largest effort to plan the county’s future since the current plan was adopted in 1991 and saw major revisions in 2001. It is being revised alongside the Countywide Transportation Plan.
Keirce pointed out that county supervisors have previously criticized the Planning Commission for, in his words, “making a decision too quick, and not evaluating the data.” This spring, supervisors told planning commissioners they needed to give land use applications more review before passing them to the Board of Supervisors for a vote.
In April 2016, supervisors adopted a schedule for revising the comprehensive plan which would have seen the plan already done, in just 18 months. But work by a 26-member stakeholders committee appointed by the board to develop the first draft of the plan stretched out to two years.
In March, supervisors adopted a new schedule to have the plan done by March 2019, before the current board’s term ends.
This week, the county planning staff told the Planning Commission they would only have time to run one model of the results of the commission’s work—a calculation of the growth and fiscal impacts of the plan as the commission proposes it.
Commissioners: No Community Health or Climate Change Language
Commissioners did get started on planning work ahead of an eight-hour meeting scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Planning commissioners voted to not include a new section of policies on health and access to care in the new plan.
County staff members had recommended adding a section to the general plan on “healthy communities,” described as “language to speak more towards quality of life in the County, mental health, and healthy active lifestyle.”
“It really is a holistic approach to tying together access to healthcare, clean, safe housing, clean water, walkable communities, spaces to interact with your neighbors—it’s a broad, holistic approach to providing quality of life in a community,” said Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Alaina Ray.
Commissioners Kathy Blackburn (Algonkian) and Eugene Scheel (Catoctin) were particularly critical of the idea.
“Are we saying something like towns should collect garbage once a week?” Scheel said. “That’s health. I mean really. I mean the rest, you’re just trying to create language that is meaningless.”
Blackburn said the concept could be “too political.”
“I’ll just throw it out there, I personally don’t want to see abortion clinics coming into Loudoun County,” Blackburn said. There is no mention of abortion or reproductive health in any document or statement from county staff members.
With healthy communities out, the commission also decided against a recommendation to add the concept of access to care to the plan. Only Commissioner Jim Sisley (At Large) resisted those decisions.
Blackburn also led the charge to take out language in the plan calling to “update and implement the County Energy Strategy to reduce the impacts of climate change.” She argued the use of the phrase “climate change” is politically charged and “could be obsolete” before long.
“And in five years it could be nonexistent,” she said. Other commissioners agreed.
‘Ashburn is Ashburn’
Blackburn also questioned planning policies that would continue to set Old Ashburn apart from its suburban surroundings as a historic community.
“Ashburn is Ashburn,” Blackburn said. “It’s not rural anymore, in my opinion. So why should that little group of people—they can keep their historic buildings, and they can keep their cute parts, which I like—but why should one area get to say lower density when the rest of us are suburbia with higher density?”
But other commissioners resisted erasing Old Ashburn. Commissioner Fred Jennings (Ashburn) referenced a previous debate in the area, in which county supervisors changed the zoning to prevent large townhome developments from going up in the area. Jennings said that would have been the “death knell” for Old Ashburn. He recommended leaving the policy as recommended to reflect “what it looks like on the ground.”
“If we don’t, I think there will be no chance, and we will have lost any future option,” Jennings said.