By Al Van Huyck
Ben Franklin was asked at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by a citizen, “have we a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” I was reminded of this quote as the question being asked about the newly adopted 2019 Loudoun County General Plan, “Is it a developer’s plan or a citizen’s plan?” And in my mind, it is a “compromise plan if we can keep it.”
For many of the citizens who have worked so hard for three years to make the citizen’s voice be heard we owe a great thanks to our Board of Supervisors. In just 90 days, they took the draft plan and rolled back its excesses and responded to the people concerns in a variety of important ways.
And we can thank the entire Department of Planning and Zoning staff for their endless and often frustrating work, but in the end with the supervisors’ support came up with innovative proposals to reach compromise.
It has been a long three years to passage. It started with the business-oriented Stakeholders Committee proposing to the supervisors that 18,000 housing units be included in the Transition Policy Area. Only to have Supervisor Matthew Letourneau’s now famous rejoinder “What planet are you on?” This to be followed by the Planning Commission restating the desire for 17,000 units 18 months later (confirming I presume that Mars was the planet they were on).
In the end, the plan provides for about 3,000 additional housing units, but unfortunately transferred close to a square mile of Rural Policy Land into the Transition Policy Area (TPA) to accommodate new houses.
It is this kind of “compromise” that will be under assault in the years ahead. A precedent once set will be the basis for future requests. Already at the supervisor’s public input on the very night they voted to approve the plan three residents appeared to argue that their rural land next to the TPA should be included.
Meanwhile, Tony Howard president of the Chamber of Commerce has written an op-ed arguing we need more housing and this view is supported by the Realtors, the home builders, the economic development interests, and some property owners. And these views are fully supported by the Housing Chapter of the new plan even while the spatial chapters reflect the citizen’s view on limited population growth.
This is basically the same debate that has gone on for at least 20 years in Loudoun. Housing is recognized nationwide as a strong economic contributor with its forward and backward linkages to the overall economy. In short, development and population growth are legitimate goals for which most Counties would be delighted to achieve, but Loudoun also has different priorities.
The majority of citizens, as witnessed by their robust participation in the plan process, view the county as a special place with unique heritage and environmental assets, a family friendly suburban area of planned communities, and a robust rural economy that all enjoy, and all want to preserve this quality of life. For the public, unchecked and rapid residential growth is a threat that has already manifested itself in serious traffic congestion, never ending school boundary adjustments, deficits in parks and trails and other facilities and services and deterioration of our steams and environment.
So, while everyone involved can share in celebration that the Loudoun 2019 Plan has been adopted it is also important to recognize that it is a compromise that has not resolved the fundamental clash of views as to the future of the county. This will now be the focus of the specific development applications and proposals that will be forthcoming in the years ahead. And the burden will fall on the citizens, the future planning commissioners, and supervisors to answer the question “Can we keep it?”
[The writer if a former Loudoun County Planning Commission chairman who served on the Envision Loudoun Stakeholders Committee and is a founder of the Loudoun County Conservation and Preservation Coalition.]