By John Ellis, Hillsboro
Board of Directors of Save Rural Loudoun
Loudoun Now’s recent article on the County Board of Supervisors’ debate on potential rural preservation programs (“Supervisors Set to Switch Development Rights Programs,” Feb. 28) quoted several supervisors’ largely negative responses to a proposed Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program. Unfortunately, those reactions reflected a number of misperceptions that we must correct.
One of the principal concerns raised was that a TDR program might affect the county’s ability to negotiate “proffers” with developers of large suburban properties. TDRs would conserve farms and other open land primarily in the transition and rural areas of the county, while proffers primarily help residents of suburban areas (state law does not allow them in rural areas). Based on the incorrect premise that the two programs cannot co-exist, several supervisors claimed that TDR would only help rural residents and only at the expense of suburban residents. One asked dramatically: “who is standing up for the residents or our suburban districts?”
The clear answer to this question is “those who are standing up for TDR and other land conservation programs are, by definition, also standing up for both suburban and rural taxpayers and residents.”
The supervisors’ objections to TDR are based on three specific misperceptions. First, they overstate the extent to which proffers would be affected by a well-designed TDR program. Second, they exaggerate the importance of proffers to Loudoun taxpayers and to our suburban residents. Finally, they ignore the tremendous benefits of TDR to residents of both the suburban and rural parts of the county.
State law allows the county to design a TDR program that could apply only to industrial developments, such as data centers. This strategy would have no effect on the current practice of requiring legislative approval and proffers for dense residential developments. The county could continue to accept proffers from developers of large residential properties at the same time that it implemented TDR with respect to industrial developments. In fact, the county could also continue to accept proffers from industrial developments that were subject to the TDR program, although the need for industrial proffers might be lower since they have much less of an impact on roads, schools and other public infrastructure.
When worrying about proffers, it is also useful to keep in mind their relatively minor significance relative to the overall cost to taxpayers of building public infrastructure. The county’s current six-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP) calls for over $2 billion in spending on new roads, schools and other projects. During that six-year period, the county expects to receive $46 million in proffers, which will cover less than 3 percent of the total bill. Clearly, that 3 percent will not be the most crucial factor driving our tax bills.
The dramatic growth of the county’s capital and other expenditures, on the other hand, is a much more significant issue for our taxpayers. The county’s operating budget increased by an average of 9 percent per year between 1990 and 2015. Ten years ago, the CIP included $7 million for county-funded road-building. In the current CIP, that figure has risen to over $800 million, an increase of more than 11,000 percent. In the county’s FY2020 operating budget, tax-funded debt service on past capital investments exceeds $188 million—12 percent of total expenditures and four-times more in one year than the county expects to receive in proffers during the entire six-year period of the CIP. As CIP expenditures continue to grow, rising debt costs will certainly follow.
Why is the county’s budget and debt growing so rapidly? Simply because it must keep up with the needs of our rapidly growing population. When the population grows, the County government needs to build more roads to reduce traffic congestion, more schools to educate our children, and more emergency facilities to put out fires and rescue us when injured. And it needs to staff the rapidly expanding schools and other public institutions with employees who can deliver high quality services.
What concerned taxpayers should really be focusing on, therefore, is whether the county will continue to allow unconstrained population growth. As things stand, there is no sign that things will change. Under current zoning rules, “by right” development is projected to nearly double our rural residential population over the next twenty years. The Silver Line West project alone would add another 3,700 residences in the east. And the county Planning Commission proposes to double-down on this built-in growth by “up-zoning” large sections of the Transition Policy Area, including farms and other open spaces, to allow for 22,000 more residences.
As it turns out, TDR and other land conservation programs – together with sensible zoning policies – can be highly effective tools for slowing both the growth of the residential population and the county budget. For a small percentage of the amount the county receives in proffers, trying to pick up the pieces after growth has occurred, it could implement land use programs, such as TDR, that constrain growth in the first place. By doing so, it would automatically reduce the future costs to the taxpayer of building more roads, schools and other infrastructure. On a purely financial basis, the benefit: cost ratio of these programs would be strongly positive.
Of course, the advantages of land conservation are not purely financial. All Loudoun residents – including residents of our suburban districts – share the many contributions to our quality of life of preserving land and restraining population growth: including ready access to locally grown food, nearby trails and other outdoor recreation opportunities, world-class wineries and breweries, historic sites, and beautiful scenic vistas.
So, in response to the supervisor’s question about who is standing up for Loudoun’s suburban residents, the answer again is – those who are advocating for TDR and other land conservation programs.
John Ellis, Hillsboro (on behalf of the Board of Directors of Save Rural Loudoun)