Loudoun supervisors last night agreed to study a program that would allow rural landowners to sell the rights to develop their land to people with property in suburban areas of the county, but not without debate.
Supervisors Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) originally proposed a Transfer of Development Rights program last summer as a way to permanently preserve the county’s rural reaches. Under that program, landowners in some areas—selected by the Board of Supervisors—would be able to sell their development rights. Landowners in other areas, also chosen by the board, would then be allowed to buy those development rights and apply them to their own land, increasing the allowable density on that land.
The program could be tailored to Loudoun, with options such as a formula for converting residential credits into commercial development rights.
It’s also a program that has been implemented in various forms in other Virginia counties and around the region, but one the Planning Commission has not recommended for inclusion in the county’s comprehensive plan. And during the county board’s Feb. 21 meeting, it faced opposition from some eastern county supervisors who worried it would take planning Loudoun’s growth out of their hands, and who painted the program as pitting suburban east against rural west.
“Who is going to stand up for the east?” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “Who is going to stand up for the suburban districts of his county, which are the vast majority of our residents, which are overrun with poor level of service on all of our major thoroughfares?”
Normally, developers who want to build more than the allowable amount under the zoning on their property must apply to the county for a rezoning—a process which also involves negotiating proffer agreements to help pay for the roads, schools and other infrastructure necessary to support that extra development. Some supervisors worried that a transfer of development rights program would allow developers to build more than allowed for in county plans without having to pay proffers. Those proffer agreements are a key part of how Loudoun County tries to keep up with the demand for public infrastructure and services in the face of rapid growth.
Letourneau pointed to an application before the board that night for a major development near Loudoun’s future Metro stations, which comes with hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure investment from the developer.
“I am open to potentially some other solution here, but what I am not open for is mucking up our planning process,” Letourneau said.
Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said, “the winners are the landowner that is the sender, the winners are western Loudoun, the winners especially are the developers, and the loser: all of eastern Loudoun.”
“The first thing I would try to do is preclude every teaspoon of dirt in the Ashburn district from this ordinance,” Buona said.
But the proposal’s supporters said it would help Loudoun as a whole. Buffington said, “we’re one team working together, we’ve got to keep our rural west and our suburban east.”
“We’re not going to have a big, strong rural economy for much longer if we keep losing open space to housing,” Buffington said. “I wouldn’t go to Dirt Farm Brewery or Bluemont Winery or any of those places if I looked out and all I saw was rooftops.”
“We are one county, and the assets that we have, east and west, dovetail with one another and complement one another,” Higgins said. “And if we are careful, we can do a good job preserving all of them.”
He pushed for sending the program to a committee for more study, and said other supervisors’ concerns can be ironed out in the details of the program. For example, a county report on other similar programs found Frederick County’s allows developers to purchase and extinguish development rights in lieu of making cash proffer payments or using those rights to build. He also said the county could conceivably purchase development rights and simply never sell them to a developer.
“I think that this is a great opportunity to look at another way to preserve and keep Loudoun the beautiful place that it is, and we’re not trying to do it at the expense of one part of the county over the other,” Higgins said.
Supervisors voted 6-3 to send the proposal to the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee for further discussion, Letourneau, Buona and Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) opposed.