Vance: Time to Challenge

By Roger Vance

An opportunity to shape the future is a rare one and when presented with that opportunity, bold leadership is required. We have arrived at such a time today in Loudoun. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we listen to our citizens, be mindful and innovative and seize the time to rethink and challenge?

Some three years in the works, a proposal for the 2040 Loudoun Comprehensive Plan has been delivered to the Board of Supervisors from the county Planning Commission. In its letter of transmittal to the board, the Planning Commission acknowledged the “unprecedented public engagement effort” of Envision Loudoun over two years and described a Comprehensive Plan as the “opportunity for communities to think collectively about the future” and to “develop a shared set of values and strategies intended to achieve a unified vision.”

As we review and debate this plan, we must evaluate if it does in fact reflect the desires of its communities and presents a shared set of values.

I do not believe it does and believe we have no recourse but to challenge the underpinnings that drive the plan, the numbers and the future picture of Loudoun they call for. This was not the Loudoun envisioned by the more than 3,000 residents who participated in the process.

The commission contends its planning vision “is economically, socially and environmentally balanced … grounded in economic reality, realistically achievable, and it is fair—it meets the needs of the entire county without bias toward any small group of people who live in one area.”

We must evaluate if this is a balanced plan or not. Is it economically sound, achievable and fair?

The overwhelming driver to this plan, the commission proclaims, is “the need to address future housing demands facing the county. … Economic growth requires housing, and in turn, the County needs sustained economic vitality to enact policies that address unmet housing needs.”

Certainly we must clearly understand the future housing demands in the county, and evaluate the assumptions of the plan’s description of those demands.

Fulfilling the unmet housing “need” is paramount, says the commission, and even the planned density in the brand new Metro-driven Urban Policy Area’s is inadequate. With the Suburban Policy nearly built out and the Rural Policy Area density unchanged, the last—indeed the most critical—place for meeting the “need,” the commission claims, is in the Transition Policy Area.

We must challenge the commission’s contention that the Transition Policy Area was never actually intended to serve as the transitional buffer between suburban development and the rural west. We must rebuke the commission’s assertion that the TPA was, rather, always intended to be a holding area for future growth. We must counter the proposition that the yet to be builtnew urban areas and a truly innovative and incentivized redevelopment approach in the Suburban Policy Area cannot accommodate more of the “unmet housing needs,” especially those of affordable housing options.

Evaluating this massive plan requires an understanding of the basic assumptions from which it was built. While much of this plan is extremely thoughtful and meticulously detailed, especially in its proposal for a myriad of “place types” that respect context and encourage “community,” the Commission’s fervent focus on “meeting housing demand” is a flawed predicate in itself—and fiscally indefensible.

Loudoun County’s 2020 population is estimated to be 424,000, and the county’s own current projection is for 20 percent growth over 20 years, to 502,400. In stark contrast however, the Planning Commission’s 2040 Draft Plan proposals are based on 35 percent growth to more than 630,000 residents, requiring some 74,000 new dwelling units, more than doubling the current County projection.

We must reject this assumption for growth and its role in driving our future and instead acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of County residents are asking for constrained growth.

Foundational to the draft plan is its fiscal impact analysis that has satisfied the Planning Commission that its proposed plan’s growth will have a cumulative positive net fiscal impact to the county—meaning revenues will outpace expenditures. However, the fiscal impact assessment delivering this net positive impact does not factor in the costs of transportation infrastructure needed to accommodate another 208,000 residents.

For a county spending hundreds of millions today to meet the unmet demands for transportation infrastructure caused by the rapid growth of the past decade, we cannot accept the proposed plan’s unconscionable “economic reality” that baldly dismisses transportation costs associated with another 208,000 residents.

The proposed plan’s net positive impact is further conditioned by the assumption that 100 percentof the capital needs required by the new 208,000 residents (schools, first responder facilities, libraries, water, sewer, parks, et cetera…) will be paid for by developer proffers up front at the start of development.

For a county just now trying to catch up with the demands for capital needs associated with past growth while hobbled by constraints on proffers, we must aggressively challenge the realistic achievability of this most fanciful prospect.

The Board of Supervisors set the Envision Loudoun effort in motion three years ago to gather input of Loudoun residents, which would then inform the Planning Commission’s work with the desires of the communities in order to arrive at a shared vision.

Unfortunately, in the proposed Loudoun 2040 plan before the Board—despite the platitudes—it is obvious that the expressed desires of the community have been dismissed and negated. Establishing the sound principles, policies and innovative initiatives that will set a solid course for Loudoun’s future now rests with the Board of Supervisors. Ensuring they know the desires of our community is up to every one of us.

Will they hear their citizens, be mindful, innovative and bold to seize this time to rethink and challenge? They must. Our future depends on it.

This plan is not defensible. It’s time to challenge, it’s our right and, dare I say, our responsibility, for all us here today and for those who will come after us.

[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View from the Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.]

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