Micro-cottages and tiny homes might be the housing option of the future—especially in areas like Loudoun where the cost of living is unbearable for some—but for now, they’re sparking a bit of resident concern.
The recent advent of stand-alone dwelling units designed to be less—and oftentimes far less—than 1,000 square feet in total floor area seems to have taken hold in Loudoun, with multiple projects proposed and one that’s already under construction. These aren’t the recently-popularized tiny homes that sit on wheels and can be towed from place to place, though. These are homes built with permanent foundations that happen to be abnormally small and are built with a two-fold concept—to pack more dwelling units onto a given property and to provide residents with an affordable housing alternative in a county where a one-bedroom apartment typically goes for somewhere around $1,500, according to listings on Zillow and Apartments.com.
One way projects like these are moving forward is the county’s Zoning Ordinance definition of a “country inn,” which allows for 1-40 guest rooms and for guests to stay for up to 30 days at a time. The concern kicks in there, as some critics claim the projects go beyond the intent of the ordinance to allow property owners to rent out guest rooms in their primary residences and maybe one or two ancillary buildings, like their guest houses. Critics say that building individual dwellings and then calling them “guest rooms” is contrary to what the writers of the ordinance intended, citing this interpretation of the regulation as a “loophole” that property owners are exploiting.
One of those concerned residents is Alta Jones, the owner of AltaTerra Farm Bed and Breakfast near Hillsboro and a member of Loudoun’s Rural Economic Development Council. Jones said that she feels the zoning ordinance was written with the overall intent to preserve rural land, specifically in the Agricultural Rural zoning district—where country inns are by-right uses.
“There’s loopholes that we need to close,” she said. “We need to limit density.”
Jones is primarily concerned about a project taking shape on 42.3 acres of land about 2.5 miles west of the Town of Hillsboro along Rt. 9. There, John Robic is building 40 dwelling units that are 780 square feet in size and include a first floor with a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom and a second-floor loft area. It’s all part of a project he’s named the Blue Ridge Country Inn that the county approved last September. That project seems to somewhat mirror a similar one that Robic planned in 2012 on a property about 3.5 miles north along Sawmill Lane.
According to county documents, in 2012 he sought to build a “rural hamlet subdivision” on a 115-acre property with 24 individual “micro dwellings” intended for single or double occupancy that would have each been less than 400 square feet in size.
Robic wrote that one of his goals for the project was to “provide affordable housing within the county,” finding that there were no housing options with rent at or less than $1,000 per month in the surrounding area. He wrote that, while renters prefer to live alone, they’re often forced to get roommates to afford paying rent, noting that many are willing to sacrifice dwelling size for privacy and affordability. “Towards this end, we would like to offer county renters a new alternative—VERY small dwellings at under $1,000,” he wrote.
To accomplish that, Robic initiated discussions with the county’s Department of Planning, indicating that he intended to eventually apply for a minor special exemption to allow for an increased number of dwelling units per lot under the Zoning Ordinance’s regulations for “accessory apartments and dwelling units.” He met with county staff members but apparently never applied for that exemption.
Robic declined to be interviewed for this story.
Another tiny rental cottage projects still in the conceptual stage is at Graydon Manor near Leesburg, also being explored as a country inn.
Although there aren’t any submitted site plans for a country inn at Graydon Manor just yet, David Culbert, the attorney representing the property, did submit a request for zoning determination to County Zoning Administrator Mark Stultz in July asking him to clarify specific Zoning Ordinance language related to country inns.
Culbert was seeking to confirm an interpretation, among others, that “a ‘guest room’ or dwelling unit may house more than one occupant,” and that guest rooms can have additional rooms, including kitchens.
Senior Planner Mark Depo responded to that request in November, writing that while the Zoning Ordinance does not define “guest room,” previous Loudoun County Zoning Administration opinions “have determined that a ‘guest room’ is not a ‘dwelling unit.’”
Depo also wrote that a “guest room” should contain “sleeping facilities” and can additionally contain a bathroom and foyer as accessory elements, but “shall not contain independent cooking (kitchen) facilities.”
Graydon appealed Depo’s response to the Board of Zoning Appeals, which just last week affirmed Depo’s stance. The Graydon Manor owner has 30 days to appeal that ruling to the Circuit Court.
Yet another concept, for cottages where people would live on a more permanent basis, is Paul Smith of Tree of Life Ministries’ idea to build a 32 micro-cottage community on the 7-acre Weona Villa Motel property just east of Round Hill.
Smith’s idea for square footage in the proposed micro cottages is similar to that of Robic’s Blue Hill Country Inn, at no more than 1,000 square feet per unit. That proposal differs from that of Robic’s and Graydon Manor’s, though, in that it’s not intended for short-term, but instead long-term rentals, like the five apartments Tree of Life operates in Purcellville.
Smith said that he’s waiting to hear back from the county staff to determine how county zoning might allow him to build those units in the Agricultural Rural zoning district.
Because the property’s existing well and septic system might not be able to sustain the proposed development’s needs, Smith requested the Round Hill Town Council extend municipal utility service to the property. To do that, the town and county governments would need to revise their comprehensive plans to include the property in the Joint Land Management Area—an area outside the town limits that the town provides water and sewer service for.
The Town Council was scheduled to vote on an intent to amend its Comprehensive Plan Thursday night.
To rectify the “loophole” in the Zoning Ordinance’s language on country inns, Jones said that the Rural Economic Development Council is working to bring a Resolution to Amend the ordinances before the Board of Supervisors, which, if approved, will direct county staff to take a closer look at short-term rental regulations.