More than three years into an 18-month process to write a new comprehensive plan, county supervisors on Thursday are expected to vote to adopt the first major refresh of the county’s long-term growth plans in nearly 20 years.
The new comprehensive plan was one of the first projects the new board launched at the beginning of their term in 2016. Supervisors first voted on a charter for the plan review in April of 2016, but wheels had started turning on that effort even before then.
“I think none of us knew in 2016 what we were walking into,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) later. “But that just goes to show how it’s important to update your comprehensive plan in a holistic way every five years, especially for a county that’s growing as fast as Loudoun.”
And she said nearly 20 years after the last major comprehensive plan overhaul, she is not surprised it took three and a half years to do the work. And, she said, she is satisfied with the result.
“I believe had it not been 20 years, we would not have seen some of the encroachment in parts of the rural policy area that we did, and that’s unfortunate, but in the end the only difference in the rural policy area was 0.95 square miles,” Randall said.
Supervisors voted to move some land out of the county’s Transition Policy Area, a strip of land dividing Loudoun’s suburban east from its rural west and rural Fauquier and Prince William Counties to the south. It was a controversial move—conservation advocates saw the change as further suburban creep threatening Loudoun’s rural areas. But Randall said she is “well pleased” that, other than that, “we were able to protect Rural Policy Area.”
Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce President Tony Howard in particular celebrated the new Urban Policy Area, a new, fourth policy area that joined the Rural, Suburban and Transition Policy Areas. It includes the county’s future Metrorail stops, and he said well let Loudoun “take full advantage of the investment we have made as a community in Metrorail.”
Both Randall and Howard predicted that under the new plan, that area will resemble Reston Town Center in 20 years, and both hoped the rural areas will look much the same as they do today.
Still, Howard pointed out, writing the new comprehensive plan involved many different and sometimes competing interests, “so it’s never going to be perfect in anyone’s eyes. We just have to accept that.”
To Randall, that means the plan should have more language about sustainability and environmental protection. To Howard, it means more about affordable housing.
“The vast majority of [supervisors], some more often than not, recognized that Loudoun’s having a housing affordability crisis, and actually it can only be described as a crisis,” Howard said. “And depending on the pay scale you inhabit, it’s a crushing crisis.”
But, he said, “I’m not convinced that this plan goes nearly far enough to address that.”
He also said the process was not handled well, dragging on too long in its early stage with a 26-member stakeholder steering committee that lasted two years. That, he said, meant the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors were pushed for time, and couldn’t make the most of the contribution of those volunteers.
“That’s just way too much to ask from citizen volunteers, and especially people who are already pretty busy with their family and other personal and professional obligations,” Howard said. “I frankly don’t think that was very respectful.”
And, he said, that could affect future attempts to revise the comprehensive plan. Theoretically, the county would aim to update its comprehensive plan every five years.
“I don’t think the memories are going to fade form the stakeholders who participated, and if we’re going to go back to them or their organizations and say, ‘hey, can you lend us somebody else?’… They’re going to say ‘we need a contract that you’re going to wrap this up in six to nine months, not two years.’”
Most people are understandably still coming to grips with everything in the 500-page document, which has been assembled in a mad rush to beat a 90-day deadline for the Board of Supervisors to ratify the plan after the commission’s review. The final version was only published Tuesday evening—less than two days before the final vote.
“I have been impressed that the board, given what they were faced and given what the time frame was, has taken this really seriously and made a real effort to get into it,” said former Planning Commissioner and Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition cofounder Al Van Huyck. “But of course, the plan itself is so large and so full of things that they had to be selective on what issues they were addressing.”
He said he and his colleagues will make a detailed examination of the final plan, but that isn’t likely to be complete by Thursday. As of Tuesday evening, calculations of the plan’s fiscal and housing impact were not available.
Previous drafts of the plan had also received evaluations from county staff members and consultants, calculating among other things how many additional homes those plan changes would allow in Loudoun. As of Wednesday, no such calculation has been made available on supervisors’ work, which only wrapped up Saturday.
Browse all of Loudoun Now’s coverage of Loudoun’s new comprehensive plan at loudounnow.com/compplan.