Op-Ed: John Ellis, Save Rural Loudoun

In recent debates over Loudoun’s draft Comprehensive Plan, those who want to keep the pedal to the metal on the county’s breakneck growth rates have maintained that current zoning rules adequately protect Loudoun’s rural areas from excessive development. As more rural land vanishes every day, this claim requires a whole new definition of the word “protection.”

Let’s look at the facts. Over the past 20 years, 5,500 new houses were built in Loudoun’s Rural Policy Area, all in full compliance with the County’s current zoning rules. As a result, we lost 67 square miles of prime farmland.

Under the same zoning rules, which the draft Plan would leave unchanged, County staff projects that 7,500 more houses will be built in the Rural Policy Area and another 10,000 houses will be built in the County’s Transition Policy Area by 2040.

This would result in the cumulative loss of another 70-80 square miles of farmland, converting more than half of Loudoun’s rural areas from farms, tourism and other rural businesses into commuter bedroom communities. And, incidentally, those new households would add another 175,000 vehicle trips per day to our already heavily-congested road system.

By leaving the current zoning in place and continuing to claim that the new County Plan “won’t touch the west,” County supervisors appear to be endorsing this disastrous outcome. This sends a clear signal that they just don’t consider rural preservation to be a high priority.

It isn’t that we don’t have reasonable choices. Advocates for managed growth and rural preservation have presented supervisors with a range of practical rural preservation tools that Clarke, Fauquier, and many other Virginia counties have successfully adopted – such as Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs.

For apparently political reasons, however, a majority of the Board of Supervisors appears to reject these common-sense options. One has even gone so far as to describe them as “an assault on the east,” as if the citizens of Ashburn don’t give a hoot if Loudoun becomes a twin of Fairfax County over the next twenty years.

It’s not too late to do the right thing. Most supervisors probably understand that preserving Loudoun’s rural character is critical both to our citizens’ economic well-being and quality of life. Some may not be aware of how rapidly our rural areas are disappearing and may just take it for granted (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that they will survive while the County government stands on the sidelines.

For our own sakes and for the sake of our children, we hope they will look carefully at the facts, set aside any political posturing, and establish a lasting legacy of responsible public management.

John Ellis

On behalf of the Board of Directors, Save Rural Loudoun

12 thoughts on “Op-Ed: John Ellis, Save Rural Loudoun

  • 2019-05-31 at 4:14 pm

    Why not name names. Chair Randall and Supervisor Koran Saines voted on the side you, Mr. Ellis, are calling out for their votes. Why not name them. And, even better, who do you support, now, for those two seats?

    • 2019-06-04 at 3:12 pm

      Save Rural Loudoun is non-partisan and doesn’t endorse or support any individual candidates for public office. We appreciate any official who acts to preserve our vanishing rural areas, regardless of party affiliation.

  • 2019-06-02 at 7:00 pm

    Mr. Ellis, Apparently you don’t see the reality that politicians like the two party sponsored candidates running for BOS Chair who are aggressively trying to climb to higher office NEED DEVELOPER CAMPAIGN DONATIONS TO DO THAT! Developers, builders, realtors and the state itself want Loudoun developed all the way to the West Virginia border. The discussion of how important open space and rural lifestyle is only condoned by them because it takes time to build out the entire county. What part of this BOS agreeing with the comprehensive plan and then adding unenforceable words like future boards should not do what we are doing don’t you get? While Loudoun is being harvested by the State for income tax and holding back on sales tax which should come to Loudoun Chairman Randall can only say we have stepped on the national stage. THAT IS PURE (you know what)! The only way the harvesting of Loudoun will stop and the rural areas will be respected is for the developers and large builders to start complaining to the state how unfair Loudoun is by saying NO to eroding our tax base with high density student generating residential developments. Loudoun property taxes are already 33% higher than the state average. When the state asks the new board why it is resisting high density residential growth the new BOS (which I hope to chair) will answer with the demand that the composite index which extracts over $200 million per year from Loudoun be stopped or at least abated for a few years so we can catch up on building needed schools. VDOT should be properly funded and properly managed. Interstate commutation nightmare traffic conditions need to be resolved. Given our horrendous traffic conditions why didn’t this comprehensive plan REDUCE the previously approved new residential growth instead of adding 1000’s more. If the Chair”person” was honestly concerned about the rural areas why would she support TAKING rural land and adding it to the transition area to be built on? WAKE UP AND VOTE but please don’t expect pleading with developer sponsored politicians to work.

  • 2019-06-03 at 9:22 am

    In reference to the previous comments, if the Commonwealth wants “Loudoun developed to the WV border” they have a funny way of showing it. Their office of Farmland Preservation has presented county staff with information on the cost share and technical assistance from the state to help set up and implement a Purchase of Development Rights Program. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation also has much of western Loudoun targeted for protection due to its prime farmland soils and sensitive environmental features (https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/vaconvision), but none of this works unless they have a interested county partner.
    With regards to which politician voted which way on which particular vote, there has been blame and credit on a bipartisan level throughout this process. The vote to take land from the RPA and place it into the TPA was incredibly disappointing, and it was disheartening to see only Supervisors Buffington and Umstattd vote to protect the full RPA. But the status quo is not good enough, simply keeping the RPA under the current zoning with no additional conservation tools like Clarke, Fauquier, Montgomery, Frederick, and Jefferson counties have leads us down the path that Mr. Ellis describes. We’ve got to do more and put all the tools in the toolbox to help keep a critical mass of farmland available in Loudoun for future generations.

  • 2019-06-03 at 10:58 am

    The more Loudoun Board of Supervisor meetings take place on the comprehensive plan, the more one should wonder about Chair Randall and Supervisor Koran Saines. Taken as a whole, both consistently voted during the past week to creep into the rural west for housing development, by the amazing little trick of putting parts of rural land into a transition zone, and then voting to up, up and up the number of houses that are to be planned for that area. Quite a show of force by the two, along with almost all of the republican members of the board. One really does need to look very carefully at those two’s campaign finance reports for the next several months, to see how many developers are sneaking money into their accounts under the names of PACS. I have no doubt it will end up being substantial.

  • 2019-06-03 at 11:24 am

    I have several questions and comments for Mr. Ellis and other commenters to this letter. First, I wonder how Mr. Ohneiser plans to take away development rights for people who live in the Rural Policy Area. I am relatively certain that not all of the land owners and farmers in western Loudoun want to give up the ability to dispose of their land in accordance with current zoning. Their children might not want to stay on the land, or maybe they want to move to a warmer climate. I believe that it’s the well-organized, vocal groups who drown out those who don’t want to give up their rights to their property. If landowners really want to “save the west”, they can use conservation easements to do so. Supervisor Buffington’s recent program to help with legal costs should help those whose intentions are pure.
    I read in the news that the PDRs and TDRs are the answers to saving rural Loudoun. I wonder just how many acres that it is reasonable to save with these programs. Out of 230,000 acres in the RPA, are there 100,000 acres owned by people willing to sell out their inheritance? Or, is there only a handful of “farmers” who might use these means to make a quick dollar? If I were a candidate for supervisor, I would be asking how can we assist farmers to make more money. Seems to me that if people are making money on their property, they will not want to succumb to the siren song of developer money. Has anyone investigated how co-ops might help? Why don’t we have more farmer’s markets in towns and villages? I wonder if maybe the people who are clamoring for more tax money to support PDRs are not really farmers but land owners who can afford to live on their land without farming and are only looking for ways to extract tax money from the people in the east. If a person reads all of the data about the new Comprehensive Plan, that person will see that western Loudoun has a negative fiscal impact on the county. The people who live in the 48,000 acres of eastern Loudoun are augmenting the tax dollars of the west with 230,000 acres so that schools, roads, and fire stations can be built in the west.
    One final thing: Mr. Ohneiser’s inflammatory rhetoric regarding developer contributions to candidates. Presenting facts and opinions regarding policy are fair game. Making unsubstantiated claims about donations reeks of the negative politics that we should be trying to stop, not encourage in the county.

    • 2019-06-04 at 3:20 pm

      I’d like to see the data showing that the rural areas have a negative fiscal impact on the county, given that county taxpayers are currently spending over $800 million on road improvements in the east. Of course, if we have to build the same infrastructure in the west because we’ve allowed the population to double again, then it will certainly become negative.

    • 2019-06-04 at 3:48 pm

      If I understand his rhetorical questions correctly, Galluponover seems to suggest that there are “only a handful” of landowners who would be interested in “making a quick dollar” by selling their development rights under a PDR or TDR program or to a subdivision developer. It’s not clear how he squares this notion with the facts presented in the op-ed (67 square miles of farmland sold off for development in the past 20 years). Does he doubt the facts? Does he not see all the subdivisions currently being built in the Rural Policy Area? They’re plain for all to see, such as the new one at the intersection of Rte 9 and Purcellville Road, square in the initial view shed of the Hillsboro gap.

      Save Rural Loudoun is absolutely in favor of helping farmers to make a living off the land. The County has a number of longstanding programs that seek to do that, including the land use tax valuation program. We should continue these programs. Objectively, however, they have not prevented the loss of 67 square miles of farmland in the last 20 years and are unlikely to prevent the loss of another 75 square miles of farmland in the next 20 years. If they’re combined with PDR and TDR programs, we might do better. On the other hand, continuing to do the same things and expecting different results is (too put it politely) not rational.

  • 2019-06-03 at 1:50 pm

    Well, well, well. Per campaign filings from when Mr. Ohneiser ran for Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2015, he took campaign donations from lawyers and law firms. I wonder why he believes he has the great judgment in that situation to take money from attorneys who’s clients he could be prosecuting, versus BOS members who would take campaign donations from developers who’s development applications they are asked to approve (not that any even have taken said donations as there no evidence)? Seems he is just another hypocritical lawyer running for office. I won’t even comment on any of his and Mr. Ellis’s other fallacies as horseman Galluponover shot down those –probably while riding his horse.

  • 2019-06-03 at 6:50 pm

    Galluponover, You raise excellent questions. First – VPAP keeps track of campaign donations and in its reports which are public shows both my opponents have self identified developers making substantial donations. I have taken none.
    Second – The point of the county doing everything it can to increase the income and potential value of the rural land. I met this frustration on a small scale as I tried helping my son with a small farm in Lucketts which he was trying to grow unique organic herbs yet the state required a two year waiting period before he could get the organic farm title. I will rely on farmers like Sam Kroise (who is running for Supervisor for the Catoctin District), vineyard owners like Doug Fabbioli, John Whitmore who has a 700 acre farm in Lucketts and many others to make recommendations on how to increase the value of farmland including removing bureaucratic regulations. I’m a retired lawyer with decades of finance and business management experience but I certainly don’t know everything about increasing land values. I do know from 8 years on the school board how much it costs taxpayers when high density residential is approved especially when the proffers are artificially reduced by under forecasting student generation.
    Thank you for asking the question.

    • 2019-06-05 at 7:55 pm

      Mr. Ohneiser, the only income generated by additional development isn’t just that from proffers or property taxes on the residential units. More development means more businesses to service those residents such retail stores, restaurants, doctors, lawyers, salons, day spas, landscapers, trash disposal firms, home improvement contractors, etc. So after including the proffers, residential property taxes and additional tax revenue from additional businesses driven by the expansion in residents what does it cost the taxpayer when high density residential is approved?

  • 2019-06-04 at 10:49 am

    With regards to co-ops and additional farmers markets. We do in fact have multiple co-ops active in the county including the Lovettsville Market Co-op which is purchasing from a bunch of local producers. Its looking to open a brick and mortar store in the Lovettsville Fire Station once the new station is built. It still needs more membership though in order to meet that goal.
    There is also the Loudoun Valley Homegrown Markets Co-op which operates a bunch of the farmers markets in the county. Unfortunately they have been “outbid” on some of the prime market sites by a for-profit company who charges a higher fee for producers and therefore has less actual “producer” vendors, especially from Loudoun.
    Likewise Purcellville southern states is a co-op, but unfortunately they have dropped their custom application services for farmers in the county.
    So none of these things are a magic bullet…but they are critical tools in the toolbox.
    One thing we need desperately to get more products is a processing facility for both meat and produce. Right now the major bottleneck is the fact there is no additional slaughter or processing capacity locally, and our existing producers can’t really expand even if they could because the processors in Maryland, WV, and Front Royal can’t handle many more animals. Thats why we need a facility closer to Loudoun in order to allow folks to expand.
    Prince Georges, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland have put together a public/private partnership for their producers and will be opening such a facility in St. Mary’s in the next couple years…ideally we could do the same for our producers.
    Supervisor Buffington’s easement assistance program was a wonderful idea, and still holds potential, but unfortunately the restrictions put in place by the BOS for its use mean that to date NONE of the applicants for the program have been able to qualify. The income cap of 117,000 +/- when you have a farm that is owned in a family trust with 3-4 siblings (and spouses) makes it difficult to meet.
    As far as giving up property rights…all of these programs PDR, TDR, easements…are voluntary.
    What needs to be done is give folks to most options so those of us who do farm (or those who might want to), have a place to do so in the county. Even if someone who applies for a PDR or TDR program isn’t actively farming, or had no designs on developing their property immediately, but putting that land into permanent easement, that means that multiple new generations of farmers are going to be able to take a crack at being an ag entrepreneur in this county on that land. Other jurisdictions like Clarke, Fauquier, Montgomery, Frederick, Prince George’s, Culpeper…heck even Virginia Beach etc have made the decision that they think having farmland and agriculture in their communities in the future is important enough to have these programs. Fairfax made a different decision.
    If someone’s goal is to squeeze every last dime of development profit out of their property and then move away…well, the developers trade associations can advocate for them locally. But those of us who are making a go of it farming in Loudoun and want to see others have that opportunity are going to advocate for tools that let future generations do that. I’m hoping that folks who are our customers and maybe those who just like to look while we’re out sweating making hay, harvesting grapes, or working cattle feel the same way.

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