As Loudoun’s leaders write the county’s new comprehensive plan—a plan that allows for even more growth than the current plan—some are wondering if even that will be enough if Amazon decides to build its second headquarters here.
The county is in the middle of what now stands to be a three-year process rewriting its comprehensive plan, a document that sets out the county’s policies on development, transportation, public services and infrastructure that was written in 1991 and last saw a major revision in 2001.
It is also a county holding its breath to see if it will be home to the new headquarters of the largest online retailer in the world—one that could require up to 8 million square feet of space, bring in more than $5 billion in capital investment, and create as many as 50,000 full-time jobs, to say nothing of other businesses that will likely follow along to sell to the company and its employees. Amazon’s direct hiring and investment, construction and ongoing operation of the campus is expected to create tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in the surrounding community, according to the company.
Those hefty figures apparently dwarf some of the county’s planning efforts. County planners estimate under the policies in the draft plan that went to the Planning Commission roughly 52,261 new homes between 2018 and 2040. Between 2021 and 2040, it only adds an estimated 8,727 homes to the current plan. During a meeting two weeks ago, Loudoun Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Alaina Ray told planning commissioners “options are very limited” for finding new spaces to build homes in Loudoun’s increasingly built-up east.
But Ray expects Loudoun can nonetheless accommodate Amazon—especially taking into account the homes that are permitted in that area but not yet built.
“For the most part, that area is already planned for what we would need, so between what has already been entitled and what the comprehensive plan is proposing, we’ve pretty much got it covered for that area,”Ray said. “We’ve already got almost 4,200 multifamily units entitled for that area, and we’ve got another probably over 4,000 planned that would planned through the Loudoun 2040 Comprehensive Plan, and that’s just the multifamily.”
Loudoun and Fairfax leaders collaborated with developer Open-Rebees to submit proposal for The Hub property, an 85-acre undeveloped site straddling the county borders near Dulles Airport. The property has been rezoned by the Loudoun Board of Supervisors for development of 3.5 million square feet of office space and 1,300 residential units.
That project is adjacent to the Center for Innovative Technology, which was developed three decades ago during Gov. Chuck Robb’s administration and which the state government has identified for sale. There is a Silver Line rail station is under construction at that location, and it’s next to the planned 335-acre Waterside development. Currently, that project is planned for waterfront mixed-use development—by filling Chantilly Crushed Stone’s quarry with water—with 2,200 multi-family residential units, 395 age-restricted units, and 3.8 million square feet of non-residential space, along with an automotive service station, a fire and rescue station, and two schools.
Ray said planners do expect people will want to live along the Silver Line—an expectation shared by many developers, who are making big plans around the county’s future Metro stops. But much as the plan is still a work in progress, Ray said there are open questions about what sort of growth the county can expect with or without Loudoun.
“We don’t know at this point—at least from a planning side—how many of those may want to live in the county, and how many may want to live out of the county,” Ray said.
Amazon vs. Housing Affordability?
One thing seems likely, said Lisa Sturtevant—with already-high housing prices in Loudoun, and demand already outpacing supply, Amazon will only push prices further up. She pointed to the famously high housing prices around Amazon’s current headquarters.
“I think looking at Seattle is actually pretty telling, where HQ1 is,” said Sturtevant, a housing consultant who studied Loudoun. “The home prices and rents in Seattle have increased faster than anywhere else in the country over the last decade or so. It’s not just Amazon, of course, but if you don’t build enough housing, you’re going to face challenges on affordability regardless of what company moves in.”
Sturtevant is the principal author of a 2017 study on housing needs in Loudoun created by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis and Sturtevant’s consulting firm, Lisa Sturtevant and Associates. She is a former vice president for research at the nonprofit National Housing Conference and former deputy director of the Center for Regional Analysis and Associate Research Professor at the George Mason University School of Public Policy.
Her study found under the current plan, compared to market demand, the county could be short nearly 18,000 units by 2040. She is also one of several people who have voiced concern about the emphasis in Loudoun’s plan on building apartments—her study found that there is still a demand for single-family homes in Loudoun. The county’s own forecasts show it already has more apartments planned that it will need.
“Unless you’re working in Dulles, I just have a hard time imagining a base of young people attracted to apartments at the end of the Silver Line,” Sturtevant said. She said the typical apartment dwellers are single or young couples, and plans for expensive high-end apartments near the Silver Line only put them in competition with apartments closer to DC.
“Loudoun has a strong ability to attract families because of their high-quality schools and other amenities, and so the question some people ask is, well maybe families are going to make a shift, and they’re going to be more likely to live in multifamily housing,” Sturtevant said. “And again, I have a hard time seeing evidence for that when we look at data and we see the people moving from Arlington and DC, and we see people moving to Loudoun County. They’re moving out to buy single-family homes.”
There are still options. Loudoun is considering new types of housing, like two-over-twos, stacked two-story townhouses to make four-story buildings. Sturtevant said exploring new types of housing is “a really interesting way to attract people.”
“That’s sort of a new way to attract people to new homeownership opportunities, for example, that are more affordable and might be smaller,” Sturtevant said. “… and nobody else is really taking that on.”
Amazon vs. the Rural West?
But a project as big as Amazon likely will have impacts outside eastern Loudoun.
“The important thing about Amazon is, it’s going to be a regional impact, not a Loudoun impact per se,” said Al Van Huyck. “In other words, if 50,000 jobs arrive, they’re not talking about 50,000 executive houses have to be built in Loudoun.”
Van Huyck has now had a hand in crafting two plans: he served on the Planning Commission during the 2001 revisions to the last plan, and represented the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition on the stakeholders steering committee that shaped the first draft of the new plan during the past two years. He said Amazon’s buildout will take time, and Loudoun will have time to adjust.
The problem will be if Loudoun’s adjustment is to the rural west.
“The issue is: are the policymakers going to capitulate and say, well, it’s OK to build out through western Loudoun?” Van Huyck said. “Right now, everybody, including the present Board [of Supervisors] thankfully, is committed to holding western Loudoun in more or less its present form. If you have a huge wave of development coming in, it’s going to really put a lot of pressure on that decision, so that will be the biggest implication for us.”
Chris Van Vlack, who serves as both president of the Loudoun Farm Bureau and on the county’s Rural Economic Development Commission, said both organizations have talked about Amazon “with concern and trepidation.”
“Unlike Maryland, we sort of don’t know what incentives-slash-promises were made,” Van Vlack said. Loudoun’s elected leaders and economic development staff have refused to disclose what offers the region has made to Amazon.
“So we really don’t know that, which makes you a little nervous, whereas Maryland has come out and said ‘yeah, we’re going to give you $3 billion,’” Van Vlack said. “So at least you know what you’re dealing with.”
Whatever offers Loudoun and the state have made—cash, tax breaks, development policy changes or otherwise—growth in the east has often put pressure on the border between increasingly urban east and rural west.
“One of the things that we keep saying is we’ve got to keep a critical mass of land available for agriculture, or the whole rural economy thing that we’ve been promoting doesn’t work anymore,” Van Vlack said.
Already work updating the comprehensive plan has reflected that pressure, with proposals to put more homes and industry in the Transition Policy Area between east and west. The stakeholders steering committee also proposed adding more land from the county’s Rural Policy Area into the Transition Policy Area near Leesburg despite objections to that idea from county supervisors.
“There’s no way to do to the farming and the tourism without the land, so you take that away and it’s not like you can move it not the sky,” Van Vlack said.
And with constant pressure to build westward, and the Board of Supervisors changing every four years, policies protecting the west can always change. Even the current Board of Supervisors has not always stopped expansion westward.
“One thing is for sure, and that is regardless of what this board says and what this plan says, the pressure to keep development going to into rural Loudoun will continue no matter what the plan and what the policies,” Van Huyck said. “And future boards will have to make these decisions constantly.”
“I kind of wish they were focused on an area that it would be like a real jump start, like Baltimore or something, where you’ve got a place that is just desperate for some revitalization and would also be semi-local,” Van Vlack said. “But wouldn’t just drive out the farmland where it’s already being pressured to leave.”
A request for comment to Sharon Virts, who a member for the Economic Development Advisory Commission who chaired an ad-hoc committee to chase down a deal with Amazon, was forwarded to the county Department of Economic Development, which declined to comment.
“Basically, we’re not discussing the project,” said department spokeswoman Lois Kirkpatrick.
“This is a big, big impact, and the important thing for Loudoun will be to not get tied up into thinking about, we’re going to accommodate all that impact,” Van Huyck said. “That would be a huge mistake. I think we want to keep our own values and keep our own perspective here, and work with Amazon as a regional partner.”