Letter: John Ellis, Save Rural Loudoun

Editor: In response to last week’s report on Chair Randall’s proposal to consider renewing Loudoun County’s Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, opponents dragged out the old fable that county land conservation programs only benefit wealthy landowners. It’s the same line that was used to kill the PDR program back in 2004. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

The anti-conservationists claim that land conservation programs are unnecessary because landowners don’t intend to develop their properties anyway. Let’s look at a few facts.

In the 15 years since we last heard this story, Loudoun has lost another 30,000 acres of farmland to development. More than 7,000 new homes have built in the rural areas, adding 70,000 more vehicle trips per day to our already congested roads. As I write, there are more than 100 approved developments under construction. According to the county’s latest data, there are over 1,700 homes yet to be built in these ongoing developments. When those are completed and sold, they will add yet another 17,000 vehicle trips to our roads per day.

None of this is a secret. Everywhere we go, we see former farm fields marked out for more houses, access roads, wells, and septic fields. Trees are being cleared along our scenic byways and, with all the traffic, we have plenty of time to watch the subdivisions multiply. Anyone who still believes landowners will not sell to developers either must not live in the county or, sadly, must be blind.

The other part of the anti-conservation story is that Loudoun’s landowners are all wealthy and don’t need taxpayer support to conserve their land. As with most other stereotypes, this is misleading and unfair.

Many of our rural landowners, particularly those who continue to farm, are land-rich but cash-poor. In order to sustain themselves and their families when they retire, they have to find some way to monetize their land. The most lucrative way to do that is to sell to a subdivision developer. Fortunately for the rest of us, many still value the land and would prefer to preserve it for future generations.

The only viable option for those who would like to decline the developers’ offers is to receive some other compensation for voluntarily giving up their development rights and reducing the commercial value of their land. County support, through Purchase of Development Rights, Transfer of Development Rights, and other land conservation programs, can make this possible.

What does the county taxpayer get in exchange for the modest cost of these programs? The list is long and includes access to locally grown produce, beautiful scenery, parks and trails, a booming rural tourism business, less future traffic congestion, and billions of dollars they will not have to spend on new roads, schools, and other infrastructure.

As we’ve said before, this is a good deal for all county taxpayers, wherever they live. It is a good thing that our current Board of Supervisors understands and is taking concrete steps to avoid the mistakes of its predecessors.

7 thoughts on “Letter: John Ellis, Save Rural Loudoun

  • 2019-01-31 at 1:57 pm
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    Ah, the call for money! Bottom line: We, the taxpayers, are being asked to pay, pay, pay, for nothing! I don’t get to walk the land of the western Loudoun landowners whenever I want to. I don’t drive dirt roads winding nowhere, to see the mansions and miles of stone walls built by the sweat of stonemasons so that the upper crust can look the part of horse country. What I get, from this, is my taxes going up. And there will be more new schools, more demands for road, and the other costs of a growing county, for decades to come, from the already approved housing. Greed is what this proposal is about, pure and simple.

    • 2019-02-03 at 3:41 pm
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      Sir, I understand and share your concern about tax burdens. But we should be talking about the $805 million the County is currently spending to build roads in the eastern part of the County, not just a little PDR program. We could also talk about the $266 million we’re spending to build more schools, again, mostly in the eastern part of the County.

      You’re right that there will continue to be more demand for roads, schools and other infrastructure that you and I will have to pay for. That’s because the County has been allowing unconstrained population growth and can’t keep up with the infrastructure demands of all our new residents. A little support for easements, PDR and TDR would help to reduce the growth and reduce our future tax burdens. It’s a good investment.

      By the way, I personally won’t be driving on those $800 million roads in the eastern part of the county that I’m helping to pay for, and my children won’t be going to those $266 million schools. It’s the billion dollar burden you and I both help to bear because the County hasn’t been able to preserve formerly rural land from residential growth.

  • 2019-01-31 at 7:57 pm
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    Sick of guys like Sup Higgins that are preservationists in name only or when it suits them/him. When BFF Randy Minchew calls, Higgins jumps. Higgins gladly tossed out the JTHG efforts to expand rte. 15, taking historic land in the process. It is a joke that her purports to be respectful of the JTHG anything. Then he is happy to re-zone land at the Point of Rocks bridge so his BFF, Minchew’s, developer buddy/client can build the mega gas station. Higgins logic, that he thinks we are dumb enough to believe, is that ‘something less attractive could have been built there instead. Really? He also thinks it is more than OK to destroy the old road and alley network, a colonial village feature, so Minchew’s client can expand an already non-conforming building. Higgins knows full well that the requirements to use a survey and plan that were recorded, were never recorded. this is an utter violation of the law because Higgins wants to do special favors for some. He is ignoring the rule of law and ignoring any effort to preserve the rural character. Shame on him and the lies! We are not dumb hillbillies (even Higgins said so). Drain the swamp. The nepotism needs to stop.

  • 2019-02-01 at 12:24 pm
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    Mr. Ellis, I have questions regarding your letter:
    1. Do farmers in the RPA already get substantial relief from county taxes through the Land Use Assessment program that was established in VA in 1971? Unless I’m mistaken, property owners who grow anything that can be used for food for people or animals can apply and become part of the program. This qualifies them to pay pennies on the dollar in county taxes.
    2. It seems to me that there are forces at work that are bigger than what we can control in the county that prevents farmers from making a livable wage from farming. Personally, I don’t like this situation, since I grew up with grandparents who were farmers. However, how much money will it take from other county taxpayers to make up the difference? Are PDRs the right answer to this problem? Or, are there other ways like providing better venues for farmers to sell their produce? Can we help to set up exchanges or co-ops or other ways to market their products? Looks to me like the PDR program only helps one landowner at a time. Can’t we figure out better ways for the county to provide support for farmers?
    3. Is the amount that a landowner gets from a PDR enough to make up the difference between what his land is worth to a developer and what he receives from the PDR. In other words, are we back to giving PDRs to mainly those who can already afford to stay on the land anyway?
    4. I’m at a loss to understand how we are going to make up the difference in taxes that are not paid in the Rural Policy Area. Already there are over 75,000 acres in conservation easements from which little or no taxes are derived. That is over three times the area of the Transition Policy area and 15,000 acres larger than the Suburban Policy Area. That means that with less land than is in easements, the east is already paying more in taxes so that the west can have roads, schools, and first responder services. You might counter that the reduction in more houses makes up the difference. But, don’t RPA landowners still expect to have the sheriff come when they call, or a fire truck to come if needed? Do they have children in school? If they are paying next to nothing in taxes, the revenue has to come from somewhere to pay for those services.
    In summary, I really don’t believe that PDRs are the right answer to the problem. Land is worth more with houses on it than with cows. Our aging farmer population and kids that would rather write apps than plant corn means that development will continue to be a challenge. Instead of dragging out an old, perhaps flawed program, why not offer new ideas for consideration?

    • 2019-02-03 at 4:34 pm
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      Sir, thanks for your good questions.

      1. In a separate comment, “Loudoun farmer” gives a good response to the question about land value taxation. And, as he points out, that program does nothing to avoid the possibility that a farm will be sold for residential development — as demonstrated by the tens of thousands of acres that have been lost in recent decades.

      2. No, a PDR program, in itself, will not be sufficient either. You’re absolutely correct that we’re working against strong market incentives that, left to themselves, would result in paving over the entire county to make one big bedroom community subdivision. If we hope to preserve some farmland and scenic countryside, the County is going to have to use every possible policy tool at its disposal to change the market incentives. That certainly should include additional support for our farms and farm service businesses, which Save Rural Loudoun, the Farm Bureau and others are also advocating for. On the other hand, we’re not going to have any farmers left to support if all our remaining prime agricultural soils are covered with houses, septic systems, roads and box stores.

      3. We hope PDR, TDR, easements, and other land conservation programs will make a difference for many landowners. The decision point is different for every individual landowner. But we recognize that, in almost every case, a landowner who decides to put land under permanent conservation easement will be taking a financial loss relative to selling to a developer. The real question for the rest of us is, what is the cost to us of providing them with enough incentive to conserve the land and what is the cost to us (both in our tax bills and our quality of life) if all the land is developed as a giant subdivision? Which relates to the final point …

      4. I haven’t seen a breakdown of net fiscal contributions from different parts of the county, but it’d be interesting to look at. I do know that most of the 40 road projects in the county’s current capital investment plan, at a cost of over $800 million, are in the eastern part of the county. And most of the $266 million budget for new schools is also going to the east. We’re not going be covering that billion dollar bill with increased real estate taxes on a few hundred farmers in the west. Of course, if we allow Purcellville to grow into another Ashburn, we’ll be looking at another billion dollar plus bill for more roads and schools, which would soak up all the additional real estate revenues and more. The slightly good news is that the Board of Supervisors is doing what it can to reduce reliance on residential real estate taxes and increase the contribution from commercial taxes (including from the data centers).

      If you’d like to check my numbers, the CIP is posted on the County website at: https://www.loudoun.gov/DocumentCenter/View/128137/FY-2018-Adopted-Volume-Two

  • 2019-02-01 at 12:41 pm
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    Mr. Ellis lays out the benefits the PDR program specifically, and other farmland preservation programs in general.
    First, if enacting the PDR program hypothetically would make our taxes go up, why do our neighbors in Clarke and Fauquier who have such programs pay less in taxes? The small investment up front in protecting land through the PDR program pays back in spades over the long term in less taxes to support the capital costs and long term service costs in perpetuity for new development.
    On the topic of why do we need PDRs, TDRs, or other farmland conservation programs if we have Land Use Taxation. The issue is that land can be taken out of the Land Use Assessment program at any time, and likewise the Land Use program only effects the value of the land (which demands few services) and not the residence, farm structures, well, septic, garages, etc. These are taxed at the residential rate regardless of whether the property is in the Land Use Tax program or not.
    No residential development pays for itself in taxes whether its in the suburban policy area or the rural policy area. Ag land, even at the reduced tax rate of ag land use, and commercial and industrial zoned areas subsidize the residential zoned properties, even at the relatively high residential tax rates we have here in Loudoun. The generally accepted number is that Residential properties take between $1.26 and $1.62 in services for every $1.00 they pay in taxes. Ag land and commercial come in well under $1.00 in services per $1.00 of taxes paid.
    The benefits of the PDR, TDR, and Conservation Easement programs are the permanency of the programs. That land will be available for agricultural entreprenuers for succeeding generations. This means that even if the land is owned by an independently wealthy person now, when they pass away or sell the property, it will remain farmland, either for the next owner, or for one of the huge percentage of farmers in Loudoun that rely on leased land for their operations.
    The address another issue that the general public can’t enjoy the benefits of the protected farms. Each time someone visits or purchases food from a CSA, direct market operation, or visits a vineyard, brewery, Bed and Breakfast, or event facility that relies on the surrounding farms to draw in visitors, they are gaining direct benefit from the PDR program. Remember, these B&Bs, wineries, and other operations bring huge amounts of tourism tax dollars to the county as well, so, we save once again.
    No one program is a magic bullet, and there will continue to be some new development, but if the goal is to preserve a critical mass of land for future generations of producers, we have to use all the tools available in the toolbox be it PDR, TDR, or private conservation easements. There is a reason Montgomery County Maryland still has a vibrant agricultural economy and rural area, and Fairfax county has little if any. They chose to use both TDR and PDR programs to place land in reserve for agriculture and natural resources.
    We should enter these programs with our eyes open and recognize nothing is perfect, but we know where the current path leads us, so if we keep doing what we’ve done, we’ll continue to get what we’ve got. Lets choose a new path that leads to a future for the rural economy in Loudoun.

  • 2019-02-03 at 7:12 pm
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    Both John Ellis and Loudoun Farmer make many good points. There is a place for a PDR program in Loudoun County even though it is just one of several tools that are needed to preserve open space and farmland. I personally prefer TDR (transfer of development rights) because that preserves open space without spending taxpayer dollars, but I recognize that there are some very good applications for PDR as well. With modest funding approved for a PDR program, the county can act quickly to acquire the development rights on key properties when they become available. For example, who has driven through the gap in the Short Hill on the west side of Hillsboro and not had their breath taken away by the beauty of that view? If one of the properties creating that idyllic spot were to become available, it would be fortuitous if the county had a fund it could tap to quickly buy the development rights from the landowner rather than have a developer ruin the view with a cluster subdivision. With Loudoun’s rural economy increasingly dependent upon tourism, key viewsheds like this are critical assets with immense economic value.

    Residential development never pays for the costs of the schools and roads it necessitates, so why should we taxpayers in Loudoun subsidize the ruination of our landscape and the clogging of our roads with traffic? There are better ways of allowing rural landowners to monetize their investments and PDR is one of them. One way to maximize the county’s bang for its PDR buck is to make purchased development rights transferable so the county can resell those rights as TDRs and continuously recycle its PDR dollars in a revolving fund. That way, the county needs to fund the PDR program only once. To whom would the county sell its purchased development rights? A likely candidate would be data centers that wish to build up vertically with two or three stories or need zoning for new sites. But that is a discussion for another time. The point now is that a one-time appropriation of less than 1% of the county’s budget could provide tremendous flexibility to preserve key viewsheds and farmland in rural Loudoun when the opportunity arises. Frederick County, MD, spends 2% of its budget on farmland preservation every year. Loudoun County is one of the wealthiest counties in the entire country so surely, if our much less prosperous neighbor to the north can afford to protect its farmland, Loudoun County can do so as well.

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