Loudoun County supervisors have only until June 21 to finish up work on the long-delayed new comprehensive plan.
The new plan—long overdue according to state statute after nearly 20 years—was one of the first things the Board of Supervisors put into motion when they took office in 2016. Originally scheduled for 18 months, it has been in the works for three years.
After a series of public input sessions and lingering in a stakeholder steering committee made up of different government, business and local interests, the plan went to the Planning Commission in August 2018. In May, the commission produced a controversial plan that would allow a significant increase in development in Loudoun.
The current plan is forecasted to bring more than 29,000 new residential units into the county by 2040; the Planning Commission’s draft, almost doubles that to more than 56,000. It’s not a popular vision of Loudoun future. The proposal saw sustained outcry from more than 200 people during two public hearings last week.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said there are some parts of the plan where that “the board’s going to need to take a closer look at, and probably lend themselves to some changes.” He pointed out the Planning Commission’s work was centered around accommodating as much housing demand as possible.
“Loudoun County doesn’t necessarily need to meet as big a number as the Planning Commission was zeroing in on, and so if that’s the case, therefore, the plandoes not necessarily need the same type of density that the Planning Commission was looking at,” Letourneau said.
More than half of the additional development proposed in the Planning Commission’s draft of the new plan is in the Transition Policy Area, an area buffering rural west from suburban and urban east and making up about 7 percent of the county’s land. Much of the debate about the transition area has been around the area immediately south of Leesburg, where rural lands and suburban developments are closest.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said that proposal threatens Loudoun’s rural areas.
“I don’t buy the argument that adding 16,000 new homes in the TPA is somehow saving the RPA,” Buffington wrote by email. “No, it’s called encroachment, and our residents and rural businesses clearly do not want that.”
He said growth in the transition area needs to be “reduced to as close to zero as possible.”
“There’s room for growth around Metro along with some in-fill and re-development opportunities in the Sterling area, but the Commission has proposed more than 16,000 new homes in the Transition Policy Area which residents clearly said they do not want,” Buffington said.
“It is likely that the Transition Policy Area will have some land bays that will be appropriate for development, but the numbers they’re talking about are unsustainable,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
The transition area also runs along Loudoun’s southeastern border with Prince William County. And Letourneau said plans for those areas in the southeastern reaches of the transition area—in his district—also are concerning. In those areas, the Planning Commission suggested allowing 8,000 additional residential units beyond the current plan, but only after the infrastructure in the area—such as the completion of Northstar Boulevard and widening of Braddock Road—can support it.
“[Those are] two projects that are certainly not in anybody’s short-range timeline, so it’s probably worth conversation whether it even makes sense to put that type of restriction on it, given that those things may never happen,” Letourneau said.
In fact, he said, planning for massive development in those areas may even discourage work on those roads. Braddock and Northstar would both need improvements beyond Loudoun’s borders, or traffic jams would start at the county line. In neighboring counties like Prince William, Letourneau said, that is seen as a recipe for more through-traffic from out of town.
“They have trepidation that improving that road in those spots would lead to more development of Loudoun County,” Letourneau said. “They don’t want to see Braddock Road exclusively as a cut-through for Loudoun residents, which they see today.”
However, he said linking development increases to infrastructure improvements might make sense elsewhere in the county.
“For me, a lot of what I’m looking at is related to that discussion about affordability,” Letourneau said. “I don’t necessarily believe that adding more housing stock is going to automatically make things more affordable, but I do really want to probe whether there are policies … that would essentially force more affordable development.”
“Housing density alone does not make homes affordable, and policy alone does not make homes affordable,” Randall said. “House density and policy together make homes affordable, so simply putting more homes in Loudoun County will not give us more affordable homes.”
Several rural preservation advocates have argued that getting Loudoun’s developers—which are best known for building million-dollar townhouses and country estates—to build affordable housing will require more regulation from the government. But supervisors haven’t devised a strategy for that so far.
“I think I’m willing to kind of explore being more prescriptive to try to get smaller units—not necessarily smaller condos and townhouses, but single-family units, because I think there’s a big demand for that,” Letourneau said. “Most of the single-family units we have that are smaller are all in the Sterling area, and that is sort of what passes for our affordable housing right now.”
“It may take more public-private partnerships—that’s what we’ve put in place recently—it may take entities that are willing to do some different types of lending with the county, there’s a lot of ideas that we can look at,” Randall said.
“We do have a housing attainability issue that needs to be addressed, but simply building more houses doesn’t mean they will be cheaper, and I don’t see anything in the Planning Commission’s recommendation that will ensure they are,” Buffington wrote. “If we really want to address housing affordability—and I would like to work on that—then we need a separate process focused specifically on addressing it.”
Randall said she does support a proposal from Loudoun’s mayors that the county strive to lose no more farmland.
“Not only do I believe we should work for no more loss of farmland, but we should also work toward how to help farmers monetize the land that they have,” Randall said.
But supervisors have so far largely shied away from actual policy proposals supported by agriculture organizations, such as Transfer of Development Rights and Purchase of Development Rights, two programs supported by the Loudoun County Farm Bureau and conservation organizations. Republican supervisors voted down Randall’s proposal to restore funding to a Purchase of Development Rights program, which would allowed the county to buy development rights from property owners and retire them. Many have also been skeptical of Transfer of Development rights.
“I see those as slogans, I don’t see those as very realistic for actually working,” Letourneau said.
One other program, Buffington’s proposal to help defray the cost of setting up conservation easements, has been adopted and funded.
For supervisors, going into the busy months ahead, there are a lot of unanswered questions.
“I guess my overall comment about the state of play is that there’s a lot of gray area,” Letourneau said. “A lot of what we heard from some of the speakers was black and white, but I don’t think the issues are that black and white. If we don’t do anything, we’re going to get the same type of development patterns that we’ve had.”
Supervisors were scheduled to hold their first work session on the new plan Wednesday, May 1 at 6 p.m., focusing at that meeting on the county’s urban areas. Randall said the board may need to schedule additional meetings on top of the five work sessions planned so far.