Programs to preserve undeveloped rural land by shifting development rights to properties in the east were long a topic of debate for the previous Board of Supervisors, and this week the new board gave them a fresh look.
The prior board debated transfer of development rights and purchase of development rights extensively, both in county ordinances and the comprehensive plan. A transfer program, which would allow developers in the east to increase their project’s density by buying development rights from rural land, faced opposition from some eastern supervisors, but is referenced briefly in the county’s comprehensive plan. It is 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.”But despite extensive debate, the previous board finished its term with no immediate plans to start such a program.
Purchase of development rights, which the Loudoun County government has done before, was less successful last term. It would allow the county government to pay landowners for those development rights itself, and then retire those rights. When County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) joined by Supervisors Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) tried to bring it back up for study in 2019, their colleagues on the board voted them down.
That meant the ongoing zoning ordinance rewrite, updating county development regulations to match the new 2019 Comprehensive Plan, began without any plans for either program. But supervisors on the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee have given both of those programs new life last week.
In the transfer program supervisors would set sending and receiving areas—parts of the county where they hope to prevent future development, and areas where they will allow higher-density development than existing zoning.
Committee members also toyed with an idea briefly mentioned last term: creating a formula to convert residential development rights in the rural area into commercial development rights that could be applied elsewhere. That, some hoped, would avoid problems such as undercutting the county’s affordable housing program.
Currently, developers only have one way to go above the densities allowed in county zoning without having to make a request to the Board of Supervisors: contributing to the county’s Afforable Dwelling Unit program. Developers may build more homes, up to certain limits, if a percentage of those homes are put into the county’s price-controlled housing program. Allowing developers to buy those development rights instead, explained Senior Planner Randall Farren, could conflict with that program.
“There are only so many incentives that the county can provide to developers to achieve policy goals, and density bonuses are really seen as one of the most powerful,” Farren told supervisors. “… Currently, we really only provide density bonuses for developers that are participating in the ADU program, so in some zoning districts, the only way of achieving your maximum density is through the provision of ADUs. Now, if you start splitting that bonus density among ADUs and other policy priorities like [Transfer of Development Rights], then it runs the risk of diluting the participation in one or the other.”
Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) opined that developers would go first to the transfer program.
“If a TDR program exists simultaneously alongside the ADU program, the developer will say ‘wait a minute, if I can pay money for a TDR to get these same 13 units on my development through the TDR, and they will be full-priced market units, I’m going to do the TDRs, why would I ever do the ADU program?’” Turner said.
Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) said only allowing bonus commercial development would avoid that conflict.
But Randall said it’s too early to dismiss the idea of bonus residential development for participants, particularly before consulting with industry groups like the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. That organization both participated in work on the new comprehensive plan and has lobbied the board on loosening development regulations in the past.
And Supervisor Sylvia Russell Glass (D-Broad Run) echoed concerns voiced by eastern supervisors in the last term that either program would benefit the west at the cost of the standard of living in the east.
“Being in the eastern part of Loudoun County, I don’t know what the unintended circumstance would be for that area, thinking specifically in Broad Run where we have the suburban area, which has a lot of existing neighborhoods, and the Urban Policy Area which will be planned for increased density,” Glass said.
The committee will keep discussing both of those programs before bringing either back to the full Board of Supervisors for a possible vote.