Loudoun supervisors sought ways to push back on data center sprawl and housing prices in the county’s suburban area during their second work session on the county’s new comprehensive plan.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) delivered a promised motion on housing affordability, ordering the creation of an Unmet Housing Need Strategic Plan. Supervisors directed that should come alongside new zoning ordinances, the nuts-and-bolts laws enacting the policies outlined in the comprehensive plan.
The Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan “should include but is not limited to down-payment assistance programs, utilization of housing trust funds, [and] home purchase programs” in rezoning requests for development.
“We need to find out if what we’re doing is the best thing that we’re doing to try and get affordable housing,” Volpe said. She referenced an amendment to the county’s Affordable Dwelling Unit program that she introduced early in the board’s term, which opened the county up to state and federal housing funding.
Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said, “you’re never going to solve unmet housing needs just with the housing trust fund or down payment assistance.” Instead, he said, the county will need to give developers incentives to build more affordable housing—such as allowing higher-density development if they lower unit prices.
“That’s how you will trigger the incentive for it to actually happen,” Buona said. “Because these other mechanisms are nice mechanism, but they don’t scale to solve the problem. You can’t make enough down payments grants or loans to solve the problem. You can’t put enough money in the housing trust fund to solve the problem.”
Randall disagreed, arguing there are ways to meet Loudoun’s booming housing need beyond allowing more development density.
“Not having housing does absolutely negatively impact our economy,” Randall said. “Overwhelming that housing or having too much housing impacts our quality of life. There is a balance and it’s going to be up to use to try to reach that balance.”
Supervisors adopted that idea 7-0-2, with Supervisors Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) absent.
The next day, the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, which has repeatedly brought the concerns of businesses unable to find local employees to the county board, issued a statement of support for that work.
“The Loudoun Chamber has long supported more robust state and local policies directed at increasing the availability of a wide range of housing options, both rental and for sale, to meet the needs of Loudoun’s growing population and workforce,” stated chamber Vice President of Membership & Government Affairs Grafton DeButts. “We applaud our Supervisors and the leadership of Chair Randall and Supervisor Volpe in prioritizing the need to adequately plan for a wide range of urban, suburban and rural housing choices to support future economic development and job growth.”
That plan will likely fall to the next Board of Supervisors, which will also be responsible for creating a new zoning ordinances to implement the plan’s goals.
Supervisors will also revisit suburban area development policies with a goal to save space for a more traditional kind of business district, other than data centers or mixed-use developments like One Loudoun. Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) proposed a new place type—the new plan’s way of setting out areas and neighborhoods—that could allow other types of business to take hold without being outbid by the land-hungry data center industry.
Although Loudoun’s data center market, the largest in the world, pumps hundreds of millions of tax dollars into the public coffers, the industry also pays top dollar for commercial space wherever data centers are allowed. That has meant that in zoning districts where data centers are permitted, the industry has often pushed out all other business.
In their discussions, county planning commissioners recognized this reality, often discussing light industrial districts where data centers are allowed as de facto data center space.
“Particularly in the suburban area, all of the employment districts include data centers,” Letourneau said. “We either have a data center use, or we have a mixed-use use. And as much as the future might be mixed use, we still have to have a place for our bread-and-butter-type uses.”
At his suggestion, supervisors have asked county planners to devise a new place type based on this guidance, which would resemble the business districts of other areas that don’t compete with data centers, with retail, service industry, and entertainment businesses along with office space, hotels, and research and development.
Supervisors also voted to make data centers a conditional use in the suburban employment district—which could lead to data center projects in those districts requiring legislative action, giving county supervisors the power to deny data center development there or require higher standards, such as for design or greater contributions toward infrastructure.
“I was going through the parcels in my district, and I found myself not liking the options in a lot of cases,” Letourneau said.
Supervisors will continue their review of the county’s suburban policy area in a future work session to decide where in their own districts they would like to see the new data-center-free commercial district.
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) also suggested language that would encourage new data centers near major roadways or residential development to be made more attractive with higher-quality exterior design and landscaping.
Other supervisors welcomed that suggestion.
“I view this, ultimately, as something that would allow for the data center industry to continue to thrive in Loudoun, because there is this pushback out there,” Letourneau said. He added: “I do fear the day where the sentiment is going to overwhelm whatever board is sitting here.”
Supervisors adopted Meyer’s proposal 4-3-2, with Letourneau, Volpe and Buona opposed.
Randall also introduced motions to introduce more language into the plan around green infrastructure and to add the word “environmental” to a phrase repeatedly used in the plan to describe the county’s natural and historic resources, to which supervisors also agreed.
“I think this is a bunch of gobbledygook, but I’ll vote for it,” Letourneau said.
Supervisors have work sessions on the comprehensive plan remaining Monday, May 20 at 6 p.m.; Wednesday, May 29 at 6 p.m.; Saturday, June 1 at 9 a.m.; and Wednesday, June 5 at 6 p.m.