The years-long effort to write a new comprehensive plan—the document that guides the county government’s policies on growth, transportation, development—has come to close with the adoption of a new comprehensive plan Thursday night.
Work on the plan formally launched in April 2016, but wheels had been set turning before then. Originally scheduled as an 18-month process, work began in a 26-member stakeholder steering committee, which ended up working on the plan for two years. During that time, the project manager over the plan and the former director of planning and zoning both left the county. Deputy County Administrator Charles Yudd was put in charge of getting the work back on track, newly hired Planning and Zoning Director Alaina Ray dove into the project, and the committee wrapped up work in June 2018.
The Planning Commission then began its work on the plan, foregoing its annual August recess to keep the project moving. The commission focused on getting as much new housing into the plan as it could, which commissioners and development interests argued was necessary to create more affordable housing in the county, but generating strong protest from other interests.
Under the previous comprehensive plan, more than 29,000 new residential units are expected to be built in the county by 2040. The Planning Commission’s draft would have almost doubled that to more than 56,000. And more than half of that would have been in the the 36-square-mile Transition Policy Area, which buffers rural west from suburban and urban east and is only about 7 percent of the county’s area. It amounted to about 19,000 new homes allowed in the transition area—over 15,000 more than the old plan.
County planners and supervisors, upon receiving that plan in May, immediately began work to cut back that new housing. County staff recommendations were expected to allow only 6,800 new homes in the transition area, and supervisors made major revisions to the plan to more closely match that number.
But exactly what they did in the final version of the 500-page document is still being figured out.
After previous drafts of the comprehensive plan were completed, county staff members and consultants calculated how many additional houses those policies would allow in different areas of the county. That work is still not complete on the comprehensive plan supervisors adopted Thursday.
Supervisors were working on a clock: Under state code, they had 90 days from the day the Planning Commission adopted its version of the plan to ratify the document.
Some supervisors publicly wondered what would be the consequences for exceeding that timeline. There are no consequences laid out in state code for exceeding that limit, any more than there are for exceeding the requirement that the comprehensive plan be updated every five years. The previous plan, although constantly updated through individual amendments, was adopted in 1991 and was last overhauled in 2001.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) was adamant that the Board of Supervisors would not exceed the 90-day limit.
Supervisors also stirred controversy by changing up decades of policy on new central water and sewer hookups in the Joint Land Management Area around Leesburg, the planned growth area to the east and south of the town. Historically, it was planned cooperatively between the town and county, and was planned to eventually be annexed into the town, with the town getting first dibs on extending utilities to new development in the area. Citing complaints from developers in the area about working with the town, and the expectation of being annexed into the town, supervisors have instead given Loudoun Water first chance to serve those projects, extending the utility’s potential reach into new areas.
That drew protests from the Leesburg Town Council and Leesburg Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg), who said the action undermined years of planning with no forewarning, and could put the town utility in a tough spot by upsetting the assumptions under which it planned its investments.
Supervisors also planned for new design standards for data centers near homes and major roads.
While the new plan carries over many policies from the old plan, it has been completely reformatted, written around the concept of “place types.” The new comprehensive plan lays out types of neighborhoods, developments or open spaces across the county, focused on the character of those areas and laying out basic guidelines for compatible uses there. But where before the comprehensive plan focused on specific uses—such as types of businesses or residences—the new plan focuses more on fitting development into the context of its surroundings.
It is similar to form-based code, zoning ordinances that also focus less on the specific uses in an area than the buildings’ outside appearance and fit with their surrounding area.
The new plan also introduces an entirely new policy area. Loudoun’s planning has been characterized by its three distinct policy areas: rural, suburban and transition. With the advent of major urban developments and Metrorail service in Loudoun, a new Urban Policy Area has been added to the plan around the county’s future Metro stops.
Although no supervisor liked everything in the plan, they approved it on an 8-1 vote, with only Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) opposed, objecting to the changes in the Joint Land Management Area. She also said the plan does not do much to address the cost of housing in Loudoun
“Most of all, though, I would complain about the fact that under state law, we have 90 days,” Umstattd said. “And I know most of my colleagues—and I agree with them—are tired of working on this, but we needed at least twice that long to take a deep dive into these issues.”
“One way you know that you struck a balance is when everybody’s kind of mad at you, and I think that’s where we are right now,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) said the plan was a “compromise document” that “doesn’t pretend to solve our housing affordability crisis, but it does take some steps to do so.” He also said it sets the stage for Loudoun as a job center rather than a bedroom of community, tilting the center of gravity in the Northern Virginia economy away from Washington, DC and Fairfax.
“It’s not perfect for people who wanted no growth, it’s not perfect for the Planning Commission and the development community who wanted us to try to solve the housing affordability crisis in the Transition Policy Area, but it is a monumental step forward for the economy and the quality of life in Loudoun County,” Meyer said.
“While no plan is perfect, and this one certainly is not perfect, I do think that there is probably more good in this plan that there is bad,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), citing comments from a coalition of rural preservation and business groups that, while offering major changes to the plan, said there is much good about it.
Board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) agreed it strikes a balance, arguing there cannot be affordable housing without some new housing: “The existing houses don’t suddenly go down in value.”
“Sometimes you hold your nose and you vote yes, and this is one time when I think everybody on the board needs to put on their big boy pants and just vote yes on this for the sake of everybody in the county,” Buona said.
Supervisors also thanked the many people who, over the past three years, have contributed to the work on the plan, particularly Yudd and Ray.
The work is not over. The comprehensive plan is a policy document, and while it is used as a reference point in evaluating zoning and development cases, it is not a law. Supervisors also want to continue to focus on affordable housing. Next, the work begins on an Unmet Housing Need Strategic Plan, followed by writing the new zoning ordinances to reflect the policies and vision laid out in the comprehensive plan and housing needs plan.