In September, nearly two dozen area residents attended a Middleburg Planning Commission meeting to register their objections to a proposed subdivision near town. Now, that opposition is fast approaching 1,000.
On Sept. 23, the commission voted to deny developer Andrew Hertneky’s preliminary application for a proposed 38-home subdivision called Banbury Cross Reserve. Because a majority of the proposed lots sit within the town’s extraterritorial subdivision control area, Virginia law requires the developer to obtain town approval on its initial plans.
In addition to the formal vote to deny those plans—which was taken on the basis that the application was lacking essential information—23 residents also expressed opposition to the development. Weeks later, area residents near the property posted an online petition opposing the subdivision. It has since gathered close to 800 signatures, with an overall goal of 1,000.
The subdivision is governed by the county’s Agricultural Rural 2 zoning district, which allows developers to design clustered subdivisions at a density of one lot per 15 acres. Mayor Bridge Littleton said that, although the county’s clustering rules also require at least 70 percent of the land to be set aside for large rural economy lots or common open space, the “cluster” provision still encourages the destruction of open space and farmland. “It’s a fundamental flaw that’s got to be fixed,” he said.
A similar situation has recently unfolded in the village of St. Louis where developer Jack Andrews has proposed a 30-home by-right subdivision that has upset many residents who have cited potential adverse effects on the village’s water levels if Andrews drills 27 wells there.
During community input meetings in September and October, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) stressed to residents that the county does need to rework its regulations on rural by-right developments.
In the county’s Agricultural Rural 1 zoning district, the cluster subdivision option allows for even greater density, at one lot per five acres. Combined, both Agricultural Rural zoning districts make up the majority of the county’s Rural Policy Area, which accounts for about 230,000 acres, or 67 percent, of the county’s total land area.
According to the Loudoun County 2019 General Plan, 5,653 residential units were built in the Rural Policy Area between 2000 and 2016.
Using projections based on conditions as of July 1, 2016, 91,000 acres of undeveloped land in the rural area could be divided into 11,643 residential lots under the current zoning rules. The county projects 7,500 residential units to be developed in the rural west from 2016 to 2040, with about 4,000 more to be developed after 2040.
With those numbers in mind, Littleton said something needs to be done to correct the “broken approach” to the county’s cluster subdivision provisions. He said the county needs to update how clustering is done in a way that preserves and maintains the rural character of western Loudoun while protecting all landowners’ property rights.
When asked what the county could do to tighten cluster subdivision regulations, Littleton pointed to a document that the Coalition of Loudoun Towns—a non-legislative group comprised of Loudoun’s seven mayors—presented to the Board of Supervisors during its deliberations on the new comprehensive plan earlier this year.
In that document, entitled “The Loudoun Way,” the coalition urged the board to commit to a zero net loss of farmland policy, by implementing incentives “to put more land into productivity, to make land available to young farmers and to support creation of incubator farms to serve as training grounds for the next generation of farmers.”
According to the document, Loudoun’s farmland has diminished at a rate of 10 percent, or more than 20 square miles, in the last seven years—a rate that, according to the coalition, foreshadows “a rapid descent toward extinction of a true farming community in Loudoun.”
More relevant to Middleburg, Littleton said his first priority when working with the new Board of Supervisors beginning Jan. 1 is to ensure that it follows through with a preservation commitment the current board approved in the 2019 General Plan.
That commitment establishes a greenbelt around Middleburg to “clearly distinguish” it from the surrounding rural, undeveloped countryside and to protect the rural appearance of roadways leading into town. Littleton said that could be upheld by implementing Transfer or Purchase of Development Rights programs, conservation easements or other programs.
As for Banbury Cross Reserve, the county staff, which has the final approval authority for the subdivision, is awaiting a revised application from Hertneky that addresses town, county and VDOT comments.