Wednesday night, county supervisors held their first-ever meeting planning Loudoun’s new Urban Policy Area.
While it has been the least controversial of the policy areas in the county’s new comprehensive plan at public hearings, it is also one of its most distinctive policies. The new plan will be the first to include an urban policy area, joining the suburban, transition and rural policy areas in Loudoun’s plan, which divides the county into geographic areas. The new comprehensive plan describes the area as “complete communities that accommodate living, working, shopping, learning, and playing in dense urban environments of walkable mixed-use and transit-oriented development.” There is emphasis on pedestrian and bike travel, public spaces, and dense population.
But some supervisors—and county staff—were dismissive of the idea that it can absorb the majority of Loudoun’s growth. The Urban Policy Area is only about 2,600 acres—about 4 square miles, in a county of around 521 square miles. It surrounds Loudoun’s two new Metrorail stops, which are not yet open, and the area near Innovation Station in Fairfax. A third Loudoun Metro stop is near the Dulles International Airport terminal on airport property.
Nonetheless, most supervisors supported new language in the plan stating “The Urban Policy Areas will be the target area for much of Loudoun’s future growth,” proposed by Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg).
“I think we’ve heard from a lot of citizens that their intent during the initial Envision process, and then during our public hearing process, was to try to focus growth in the urban area,” Umstattd said. “That, of course, comes with challenges, as it does anywhere.”
Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) characterized that as saying “all” growth should be in the Urban Policy Area, and Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) called it “a backhanded way of trying to say, cram everything in the Urban Policy Area.”
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) called the motion “merely a fact.”
“I think we all agree that much of the development should go in the Urban Policy Area and around Metro and our urban areas,” Buffington said. Supervisors agreed to Umstattd’s proposal 7-2, with Buona and Volpe opposed.
Supervisors remain divided on how much affordable housing can be induced in the urban areas. Umstattd also proposed comprehensive plan language that urban areas “are envisioned to support a range of residential options for all income levels.”
“I believe we have an obligation to try to make sure wherever we are allowing residential growth, that we try to have a range of options,” Umstattd said. “I agree with Mr. Buona that we’re not going to solve the affordable housing issue in the Urban Policy Area alone, but I do think that we need to be mindful that this is something we all—most of us, I think—have all indicated an interest in finding locations for more affordable and workforce options.”
“The market’s going to drive the rents and the purchase prices in the area, just because of how the economics of this are,” Buona said. “I think it’s a nice statement, I think it’s a feel-good statement, but in reality I don’t see it happening.”
Umstattd withdrew the motion upon Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large)’s request, preventing supervisors from needing to cast a vote. Randall said she and Volpe will work on alternate wording for a similar effect between meetings.
Protecting the Rural West?
Some supervisors also largely dismissed proposals raised in public hearings to do more in the plan to protect the rural west and transition area from development.
“We are protecting rural Loudoun to the greatest extent,” Buona said. “[The Coalition of Loudoun Towns] came to us and said we have to have net zero loss of farmland. I’d love to see that happen, but it’s not reality. The reality is, farmland goes away for a variety of reasons.”
So far, programs to preserve that farmland face opposition from many supervisors. Republican supervisors in February voted down a proposal by Randall to return funding to a long-dormant program to purchase some landowners’ development rights with county money and retire those rights, permanently protecting that land from development. According to Randall’s office, before it was shuttered, Purchase of Development Rights protected more than 2,545 acres at a cost of $8.9 million, $4.2 million of which was from sources other than county taxpayer money.
Another program, proposed by Buffington, would allow landowners in rural areas to sell those development rights to landowners in more developed areas. Transfer of Development Rights is under study but also faces opposition from some supervisors. Both proposals have support from groups like the Loudoun Farm Bureau, Save Rural Loudoun and the Loudoun County Conservation and Preservation Coalition.
But Buona said Loudoun’s Purchase of Development Rights program “failed miserably,” and called Transfer of Development Rights “a direct assault on eastern Loudoun,”
Some eastern supervisors have argued those programs put additional development in the east without the ability to get proffer agreements from developers, which the county government uses to keep up on infrastructure such as roads and schools to support that development.
Umstattd said she would like to see successful purchase and transfer of development rights programs, but she is “not as optimistic as some of our citizens, I think, in whether that will succeed.”
“I am, however, mindful about Supervisor Buona’s concerns about dumping everything on the east, but I am also mindful of the fact that Loudoun has borne more than its fair share of the residential growth over the last 10 years,” Umstattd said. “And it has not resulted in more workforce housing or affordable housing, and that is our dilemma.”
In the urban areas, supervisors worried that too much land is already dedicated to data centers. And other areas that allow data centers, they worried, will follow the example of the current zoning districts that do.
“I think we all know what’s going to happen, and everybody’s afraid to say it,” Buona said. “I think we already have a lot of data centers over here along the Greenway and so forth, and I think the whole thing will get built out very, very fast, and there will be nothing but data centers.”
Loudoun planners have lately treated the county’s light industrial zoning district, which allows data centers, as de facto data center space. The industry has consistently outbid any other business for land in that district, in some areas—including the proposed urban policy area—pushing land sales north of a million dollars an acre.
Ultimately, supervisors did not make sweeping changes to the Planning Commission’s draft of the Urban Policy Area, but debated more nuanced questions—such as deciding not to count parks and roads in a floor-area-ratio calculation of density, which compares the total area of a parcel to the total floor space of development on that parcel; or not to count churches among public and semi-public uses for calculating other ratios. Another motion removed the areas of Westwind Crossing and Loudoun Valley Estates, which are already developed as suburban communities, from the Urban Policy Area.
Supervisors will hold their next work session, on the county’s Suburban Policy Area, Wednesday, May 8 at 6 p.m. They have until June 21 to wrap up work on the new comprehensive plan under state code.