Planning Commissioners during a six-hour work session on Saturday considered opening up some areas of the county to more housing—and a fundamental change to how housing density is measured in some parts of Loudoun.
Commissioners began a discussion about how much more housing to allow in Loudoun, and where to allow it—a major debate throughout the county’s comprehensive plan work thus far. Already, some portions of the county’s Rural Policy Area—and the Transition Policy area that separates it from the suburban and urban east—may be on the table for increased development.
In particular, the stakeholders committee that worked on the new comprehensive plan before the commission proposed moving approximately 844 acres near Evergreen Mills Road and Leesburg—about 1.3 square miles—from Rural Policy Area into the transition area. The land would be designated for light industrial development, envisioned for warehousing, data centers, office space, and other facilities up to four stories high. It is currently zoned as an agricultural rural district, with allowances for one home per 20 acres.
The current transition area is 22,813 acres in total, or just under 36 square miles. County supervisors have been resistant to shifting the boundaries of the county’s rural policy area. Keirce pointed out many on the panel that worked up the current draft of the plan wanted significantly more housing, and faced pushback from county supervisors.
“What we’re coming to our conclusion as the Planning commission is, yeah, we think we do need some more housing,” Keirce said. He said he expects a more detailed discussion on residential development and where it will be at a meeting Thursday.
Loudoun’s existing comprehensive plan envisions a total of 180,000 residential units at the county’s full buildout. As of 2017, the county had 133,000 built, with another 29,000 already approved. That leaves about 18,000 additional units that could be approved under current planning policies. The draft new plan would increase that cap to 33,000 over the next two decades.
How Dense Is Dense?
At their Saturday session, planning commissioners also recommended a fundamental change to how Loudoun evaluates how dense its mixed-use developments can be.
Commissioners recommended the county calculate development density in mixed-use developments by floor area ratio—a ratio of cumulative building floor area to the area of a piece of property—rather than by dwelling units by acre. The recommendation, suggested by county planners, would give developers limits to their buildings’ sizes and leave it up them how the residences inside are divided up.
“Rather than trying to dictate specific numbers, basically you’ve got your floor-area ratio, you’ve got your footprint,” said Commission Chairman Cliff Keirce (Broad Run).
Commissioners are working to revise a draft of the county’s next comprehensive plan, the county government’s guiding document for development policies in the long term.
Although the county Zoning Ordinance now includes rules on both floor area ratio and number of dwelling units per acre, in general residential developments are regulated by number of dwelling units. In mixed-use developments and high-density areas, floor area ratios of 2 or higher—twice the amount of floorspace as the area of the property—are not uncommon, allowing multi-story buildings.
Commissioners also rebuffed a suggestion by Commissioner Kathy Blackburn (Algonkian) at their previous meeting that Old Ashburn should be zoned the same as its suburban surroundings. They also recommended that parks be allowed in all areas.
The commission did not support pursuit of a transfer of development rights program, a mechanism that would allow property owners to sell their development rights to other developers. That would mean a developer could build at higher densities on their own property by buying the right to that density from another property owner. Conservation groups have backed that idea as a way to give property owners an option to make money from their land without developing on it.
Keirce said there are other ways to protect green space in the county without increasing density elsewhere.
“You’re going to say ‘hey, eastern Loudoun, we’re going to increase your density so I can get paid to reduce mine,’” Keirce said. “…That just doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, including me.”
The Planning Commission will continue its work on the comprehensive plan Thursday, Aug. 16 at 6 p.m. in the County Government Center in Leesburg. Keirce said he expects a more detailed discussion on residential development and where it will be at that meeting.