On June 20, county supervisors voted on the first major overhaul of the county government’s policies on growth, transportation and development in almost 18 years, creating a plan that has been called a compromise.
“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) on the day of the vote.
And although every supervisors had complaints about the plan, they adopted it near-unanimously. Only Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) voted against it, over objections to eleventh-hour changes to longstanding policies in the Joint Land Management Area around Leesburg. She also said the plan does little to address the cost of housing in Loudoun.
And competing interests around the plan all said it didn’t do enough for them.
Loudoun Farm Bureau President and Save Rural Loudoun member Chris Van Vlack said he was “disappointed.” He said their top priority was to get a Transfer of Development Rights or Purchase of Development Rights program funded—or at least planned for in the new comprehensive plan—to give the county more tools to protect rural lands.
“The fact that neither of them are even in the comprehensive plan, in the case of the PDR program the fact that it was proactively removed from the old plan, is pretty disappointing,” Van Vlack said.
Transfer of Development Rights is in fact mentioned briefly in the plan, described as one of the “tools available to the County and public and private entities to protect and preserve open space, farms, and natural, environmental, and heritage resources in perpetuity, allowing landowners to retain ownership of their property, while maximizing the economic value of the land.” However there are no plans to implement such a program in Loudoun. County staff members are still studying the possibility separately.
He said the plan also makes “no real progress” on protecting the best farmland soil, which is often developed first in the rural area because it is also the best soil for septic systems.
“There’s some language in there just like there was in the old plan that talks about prioritizing the protection of those soils, but the problem is that that was in the old plan, but it was never really done,” Van Vlack said. He said one of the big problems is cluster zoning, which allows developers an exception to density rules if they cluster those homes together.
Similarly, the Coalition of Loudoun Towns, the group of Loudoun’s seven mayors, wrote a letter to supervisors before the vote saying, “while substantial and much needed improvements have been made since the Planning Commission version was released to you just 90 days ago, there are still areas within this plan that cause us great concern.”
Among those were giving Loudoun Water first shot at new connections in the Leesburg Joint Land Management Area, which was described as a “dangerous precedent;” the retention of clustered development options in the rural area; and failure to incorporate COLT’s call for a commitment to no net loss of farmland to reverse an accelerating trend in Loudoun.
A representative for the building industry, which has pushed throughout the process to greatly expand allowable housing in Loudoun, particularly near the county’s rural areas in the Transition Policy Area, was similarly disgruntled.
Steven Marku, director of Government Affairs for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, said the plan “moves the ball minimally forward.”
“It wasn’t a surprise that the numbers came down from what the Planning Commission [plan] was, I think we all expected that,” Marku said. “But it came down a lot more than we were hoping for.”
He said allowing more residential development in the Transition Policy Area could help address the area’s housing cost problem—an argument that development and some business interests have repeated throughout the work.
“In terms of addressing the affordable housing issue, on its own it doesn’t do a lot,” Marku said. “Now, there’s some new growth coming the Urban Policy Area. That mostly just addresses multifamily and not single-family, so there’s still a huge gap between supply and demand.”
He said in the past, increased development has not pushed down prices because the demand for housing has grown even faster.
“The mismatch between supply and demand has grown, so to have not developed at all, or developed less, would just make the problem worse,” Marku said. “Now, the further out you get [from Washington, DC], usually the price points come down, but unfortunately when you get further out you tend to see larger houses on larger lots, so you don’t’ get that lower price point. So, the idea of hitting denser units further out would hit that price point better.”
The precise numbers are still being figured out—supervisors voted on the plan before county staff members had a chance to calculate the exact impacts, particularly on housing numbers, of the edits supervisors made. That report has still not been released.
And the planning work is not over. Next, county staff members will set to work 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.
“From a Farm Bureau perspective, we’re not going to sort of throw up our hands and give up and pout,” Van Vlack said. “But it just shows we’ve got to continue talking about this stuff.”
And he said as the county moves into writing the zoning ordinance, the Farm Bureau and other rural interests will be there.
“We want to be seen as a resource, because I think, honestly, the board members don’t live this stuff day to day,” said Van Vlack, who in addition to working for the Soil and Water Conservation District is a farmer. “None of them make their living farming, none of them farm, so this stuff, I know, can be kind of hypothetical to them.”
He said it would be important to give county leaders concrete examples of what is lost if farmland is not protected—such as its much-celebrated rural economy and tourism attractions.
“You can’t make all the fun stuff without all the actual production areas to support it,” Van Vlack said.
Marku, too, said the building industry would stay involved.
“We’re going to monitor this and weigh in as we see things come up, but we’ll be heavily engaged as well as every other group that’s been involved in this on both sides,” Marku said.
This article was updated Wednesday, June 26 at 3:31 p.m.