After years of work, a project that has simmered in the background of almost all of this Board of Supervisors’ term and will define Loudoun’s future for decades is almost ready to enter the final round of review.
The Planning Commission has spent months laboring over Loudoun 2040, more than 700 pages of policy to replace the county’s nearly 20-year-old Revised General Plan. When that comprehensive plan was written in 2001, there were around 190,000 people in Loudoun County. Today, there are more than 400,000.
And as that growth continues, and studies project demands for tens of thousands more homes in an already-expensive Loudoun housing market, people working on the plan say it is focused on housing and growth—although there remains disagreement about how to handle both.
“I see a plan about growth, and I think that’s a lot of housing, but also a lot of data center growth,” said Gem Bingol, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s representative in Loudoun and Clarke counties. She also served on the stakeholder steering committee that wrote the first draft of the plan, which the Planning Commission has edited further. She said the plan continues a pattern of growth and sprawl.
“You need additional housing to support more economic growth,” said Planning Commissioner Jeff Salmon (Dulles). “Without more houses, you’re not going to get the economic growth that you need, and we just signed up for Metro. Metro assumes that we’re going to have economic growth, it’s a big help to economic growth, but you can’t do everything in a vacuum. It’s got to be a balance.”
Indeed, the county is counting on development and growth in the Metro area to pay for Loudoun’s obligations to Metrorail. But one of the biggest areas of change, the county’s new urban area around its future Metrorail stops, is already being planned, in large part, outside of the comprehensive plan process.
Already under consideration by the Board of Supervisors is the rezoning application for Silver District West, a proposal by Detroit-based Soave Enterprises, the developer of Brambleton. The project would cover 158 acres along most of the south side of the Dulles Greenway between the Ashburn and Loudoun Gateway Metro stations. Representing a major part of Loudoun’s Metro-area development, it includes 381 townhouses, 3,325 multi-family units, an 8.3-acre site to make room for an elementary school, another 23 acres for a Broad Run Trail public park, and more than a hundred million dollars worth of road improvements. That area is included in a new Urban Policy Area in the draft comprehensive plan.
County supervisors have scheduled a vote on that project for March 21—the same night they’re scheduled to get their first look at commission’s Loudoun 2040 recommendations.
But the biggest, flashiest part of Loudoun’s future has not been the major point of controversy in the comprehensive plan.
Although it is a relatively small portion of the county—only about 7 percent of Loudoun’s land area—much of the controversy on comprehensive plan work has been around the Transition Policy Area.
It covers about 36 square miles, and divides the county from north to south around Leesburg and runs along the county’s southeastern border. Its western edge is the “Urban Growth Boundary,” beyond which central water and sewer are not allowed, except for town systems.
It is also one of the defining features of Loudoun today. When it was added to the county’s general plan in 2001, it was created to “serve as a separation between the suburban and rural policy areas and that has a transition of uses, incorporating elements of both suburban and rural design to create truly unique country-side developments” according to that plan. It marks the boundary between the county’s suburban east and rural west.
Salmon, who has had his hands in every part of the comprehensive plan project up to now, having also chaired the stakeholder steering committee that hammered out the first draft of the plan, said there is demand for more than Metro-area apartments—and it will be necessary to expand development in the Transition Policy Area to accommodate it. He said the Transition Policy Area is a “hot-button issue.”
“There’s one group of people that feels it should never be touched, but those same people also feel that the Rural Policy Area should never be touched, and you can’t have both,” Salmon said. “There’s 12,000 houses that can today be built in the Rural Policy Area. If you don’t give someone the option to build those houses somewhere else, they’re going to be built in the Rural Policy Area.”
Salmon and other commissioners have argued allowing more development in that area, rather than eroding the boundary between rural green spaces and suburban sprawl, better protects the rural area and relieves upward pressure on land and home prices.
“A farmer, as much as he doesn’t want to see his land developed into houses, at a certain pricing level, he’s going to cave because he’s going to have to pay too much in taxes,” Salmon said.
The commission’s draft of the plan is expected to allow more than 15,000 more homes in Loudoun than the potential full buildout of the current comprehensive plan. Many of those homes—in southeastern Loudoun—are proposed to be delayed until the county’s transportation infrastructure in the area catches up.
The Planning Commission has not been unanimous in its work. Notably, Catoctin District Planning Commissioner Eugene Scheel, Blue Ridge District Planning Commissioner Tom Priscilla and Leesburg District Planning Commissioner Ad Barnes have consistently opposed the rest of the commission’s work to expand housing in the Transition Policy Area.
“That’s the biggest concern the public has—and I have, too—coming from the smaller towns, that’s going to be entirely too much, too many homes built, and it’s going to be crowded, and it’s not going to be like what was intended to be,” Barnes said. “It’s the Transition Policy Area, not a building area.”
But they represent the minority on the commission. Barnes’ concern, raised at a meeting in late February, was dismissed by commission Chairman Fred Jennings (Ashburn): “Duly noted.”
“We’ve gone round and round on this. We took the vote on the individual parcels, but I think in general it’s important to underscore, what we don’t want … is a fast, swift development melee in the Rural Policy Area,” Jennings said. He and others have argued that when county supervisors in 2005 authorized central water and sewer service in the Transition Policy Area, it was tantamount to authorizing the development of the area.
“There was so much money spent to put in the very first water facilities, if they didn’t expect that area to grow, that would have been a foolish waste of money,” Jennings said. “There is no other option if you want to address what we believe is one of the primary challenges facing the county, which is affordable housing.”
Commissioners finished work on that plan Wednesday, making their closing arguments on their work. Commissioner Cliff Keirce (Broad Run), who chaired the commission for much of the work and has been active in the community selling Loudouners on that plan, defended the plan and its planned growth especially in the transition area.
“You can’t control affordability, the market will do that,” Keirce said. “But by providing a greater range and size of home product, that will at least give you a better range in the pricing.”
Barnes said he does not expect to vote in support of the plan, mainly over concerns about growth in the Transition Policy Area and moving some areas from the Rural Policy Area to the transition area.
“The demand of housing what you make of it,” Barnes said. “We could build a million homes up there, and I bet they would be gobbled up in no time. That’s why we are planners here, that we’re supposed to control where we want to grow and how much we want to grow. The demand is always going to be here, but we have to control it. That’s what our job.”
When county supervisors see the plan at their meeting March 21, it will be accompanied by a letter from commission Chairman Fred Jennings (Ashburn).
“The Commission received advice from myriad parties to the comprehensive planning process, but none as compelling as the need to address future housing demands facing the county,” reads a draft of that letter. “The void in the housing supply needs has elevated housing cost far beyond the metrics of affordability, impacting the attraction of a diverse populace and the ability to support a vibrant workforce for the County and the region.” He also acknowledged while commissioners are not unanimous in their support for the plan, “the majority view is that the Plan must work to meet the housing demand forecast.”
Data Centers or Houses? Neighbors Differ
The transition-area debate has been illustrated by two neighborhoods less than a mile apart.
Off Evergreen Mills Road behind Loudoun Country Day School and Sycolin Creek Elementary, residents in the Red Cedar neighborhood were alarmed to learn that farmland near them was being targeted for data center development, and organized to oppose it.
“We just want to ensure that there’s not another data center alley right outside of our neighborhood,” said Red Cedar resident Carrie Dever at the time. She and her neighbors have asked the county to plan for low-density residential development in that area, and worked to inform and involve others.
Meanwhile, less than a mile away across undeveloped farmland, residents of Goose Creek Bend have taken the opposite stance. They have asked county officials to plan for data centers in their area.
“The bottom line really is, we don’t want things to change,” said Goose Creek Bend resident Jeff Mach. “But they are going to change. It’s just the way that the region is headed.”
Confronted with the possibility of many more houses nearby—illustrated by a change in planning from one house per 10 acres, to four homes per acre—residents decided they’d prefer data centers, which put little traffic onto local roads and can be screened from view. Mach said every single household in his neighborhood is now onboard with the idea.
Some of those homes were also part of the proposal to develop the historic farm Holyfield between Red Cedar and the Academies of Loudoun as a data center complex—the same proposal that first alarmed Red Cedar residents.
In the draft of the comprehensive plan that commissioners are voting on this week, much of that area is designated light industrial—a designation that includes data centers, and where data centers are assumed to be the predominant use, since data center companies have been willing to pay top dollar for land.
“We already have power, water and fiber for data centers here, so that’s why the Planning Commission said everything on Sycolin [Road] should be light industrial, because everything is already there for it,” Mach said.
Bingol said while there is much to like in the new plan—such as a new focus on sustainability—she worried that focus on growth is misguided and doesn’t represent the input of hundreds of Loudouners who came out in the early stages of planning to voice their opinion.
The Planning Commission will take a formal vote endorsing their comprehensive plan draft March 26. Once the formal vote is cast, county supervisors have 90 days to review the plan.
And when supervisors take up the plan, Bingol—and many others—will be there.
“My sense is that a lot of the supervisors aren’t 100 percent onboard with the plan, and so I think I will definitely be there, encouraging them to pay attention to what the public said and be more responsive to that,” Bingol said. “And to sort of tackle the contentious issues, and make it more citizen-focused, frankly.”
County supervisors will see the plan at a meeting March 21.