At the 100th public meeting on the new comprehensive plan, county supervisors have begun work scaling back a proposal to allow much more development in the area buffering Loudoun’s rural west from suburban sprawl.
Planning and Zoning Director Alaina Ray said between stakeholder steering committee and subcommittee meetings, Planning Commission meetings, and the Board of Supervisors’ work so far, the meeting Wednesday, May 29 was the 100th public meeting on the new comprehensive plan. The first public work session on the plan was Nov. 7, 2017.
Although they plan to permit more development in the Transition Policy Area, a strip of land dividing Loudoun’s suburban east from rural western Loudoun and rural Fauquier and Prince William Counties to the south, supervisors and county planners are dramatically scaling back recommendations from the county Planning Commission.
And while supervisors are making changes to transition area planning in reaction to development already on the ground, they made a symbolic motion to encourage future boards to stop that trend. Supervisors unanimously adopted a motion to “permit no further expansion of the boundaries of the Transition Policy Area beyond the adoption of the Loudoun 2019 Comprehensive Plan,” brought by Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
“The Transition Policy Area is meant to do something specific, and if we keep expanding the boundaries, then it will not be able to do the specific thing that it’s meant to do,” Randall said. “…In the future, we don’t have to keep going down this track if we can at least put some language in place to encourage that to not happen in the future.”
Although universally supported, other supervisors noted that there is no legal force to the motion beyond any other policy statement in the plan, which Boards and Supervisors are within their rights to change.
The county will expand the boundaries of the Transition Policy Area this year, however. That includes about a square mile west of Leesburg Executive Airport bounded by the town limits to the north, the Dulles Greenway to the east, Evergreen Mills Road to the west and Sycolin Creek to the south. It also includes more than 400 acres—just over half a square mile—of property to the west of Evergreen Mills Road around Red Hill Road.
Today, the Transition Policy Area is about 36 square miles, about 7 percent of the county’s total area.
Moving parcels from the Rural Policy Area to the Transition Policy Area generally means planning to allow higher density development in the future. In both cases, supervisors argued, that land is already surrounded by suburban development or policies. However, where the Planning Commission recommended both homes and light industrial development—often considered synonymous with data centers in Loudoun—supervisors have instead voted for a mix of duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes blending with single-family homes, and with 50 percent of the land preserved as open space. Director of Planning and Zoning Alaina Ray said that would work toward development with a dense core not obvious from the outside.
Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) also argued it would be necessary to allow new homes there to bring more affordable housing in Loudoun.
“You can’t have housing affordability options if you don’t have some housing that’s not existing housing somewhere,” Buona said. “Existing houses are not going to go down in value unless our whole economy wipes out in this country.”
But Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) said allowing more housing in the rural area of Leesburg would not answer Loudoun’s housing cost problem.
“I think this is the crux of our problem,” Umstattd said. “You are not going to get affordable housing in that area, and that area is not suburban.”
Instead, she said, that area would likely see the development of yet more high-cost housing.
“I think this is the beginning of the assault on the Rural Policy Area,” Umstattd said. “It is going to add potentially as much as 30,000 vehicles trips a day on roads that are not equipped to handle that, and the development, which would be as dense as the community I live in [Leesburg’s Foxridge neighborhood], is going to probably sell for … about $600,000 a unit.”
County Attorney Leo Rogers allayed concerns that moving land out of the Rural Policy Area would push future boards to move yet more land. He said “in no way” does the Board of Supervisors’ work on updating the comprehensive plan control future boards.
“If this board makes a decision to transfer land from one policy area to another, that does not in any way control or compel a decision for the future board,” Rogers said. In that way, he said, comprehensive plan work is different from land use decisions such as rezoning requests, which can set a precedent.
Supervisors voted for lower-density development on other parcels, and made overarching changes to plans for the types of communities they would encourage in the area. They endorsed Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run)’s proposal for a modification of a vision for small-lot neighborhoods from the Planning Commission. Supervisors removed single-family attached homes—such as townhouses or duplexes—from the plans for those neighborhoods.
Several supervisors said they are targeting smaller single-family houses to provide more affordable homes in Loudoun.
“What drives a price of a house is the price of the land, not the price of the building,” Buona said. “And it really comes down to that in the end, so if you can get the smaller lot types for single-family detached, theoretically you should be getting to more affordable houses with single-family detached.” Ray called that “affordable by design.”
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said he envisioned “a modern version of a Sterling Park.”
Other types of neighborhoods also saw reduced recommended densities.
Where the Planning Commission’s recommendations were expected to allow 19,010 more homes in the transition area than the existing plan, including the areas newly removed from the rural area, county staff recommendations were expected to allow only 6,800 new homes in the transition area.
Supervisors, who began work from the staff recommendations, are on track to more closely match the staff number, but are also making their own modifications. County administrators and planners are currently trying to figure out whether they will be able to provide calculations of expected future development based on supervisors’ edits to the comprehensive plan before supervisors vote on the final plan, expected June 20.
They also felt the continued echoes of the controversial split decision to allow the True North data center complex on the banks of the Goose Creek by Sycolin Road. In that area, near Sycolin Road, the Dulles Greenway and the Panda Stonewall power plant, supervisors grudgingly agreed to plan for industrial development.
“We can draw the line here and make it clear that there doesn’t have to be creep,” said Meyer, one of the five supervisors who voted for the data center complex now under construction near the Academies of Loudoun.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said after the True North decision, that data center complex was the “least worst” decision. Buona recalled he had predicted—correctly—that allowing that data center complex on that formerly forested land would mean other landowners coming forward looking to do the same, and called True North “a major, major mistake.”
“I have been able to walk away from every vote I’ve ever lost,” Randall said. “The only one that still bothers me was True North. It was the worst vote this board has made. I still believe that.”
But Letourneau said the design standards negotiated for that project set a standard for every application to build a data center since, and for the design standards in the new comprehensive plan.
Supervisors were dismissive of a letter from Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk authorized by the town council asking them to defer a decision on the rural areas near Leesburg airport. Burk wrote that “this would give the Town and the County additional time to consider the potential impacts of the planning designation on those two land bays which are of great concern for the Council.”
Letourneau pointed out that recommendation was first made by the stakeholder steering committee that wrapped up work a year ago.
“I don’t like hearing that suddenly there hasn’t been time for that, because if there’s one thing that has been the hallmark of this process, it’s been that it has taken a lot of time,” Letourneau said.
Supervisors will continue their work on the Transition Policy Area at a 9 a.m. meeting this Saturday, June 1.