By John Ellis, Save Rural Loudoun
In these sad and anxious times, it is difficult to focus on the future. Despite the challenges, however, our county government continues to move forward as best as it can on important long-term issues, including the fate of Loudoun’s rapidly disappearing rural areas.
The Comprehensive Plan that was adopted just last year states that the county’s policy is to“limit residential development to protect the land resource for agricultural operations, rural economy uses, and open space uses; minimize traffic impacts; and reduce the demand for additional public facilities and services.” This policy reflects the desires and expectations of the majority of our citizens in both the eastern and western parts of the county.
In reality, most of us are painfully aware that rural residential development is not sufficiently limited. Dozens of square miles of the best farmland in the eastern United States are being destroyed, spectacular views from our scenic byways are being marred, and traffic congestion in our historical villages and on our cross-county arteries has become nearly intolerable.
Why is there such a great discrepancy between the county’s rural policies and these unfortunate realities?
Cynics may lay blame on “greedy developers” who are imagined to be manipulating the county government behind the scenes to subvert the public will. Longtime rural residents sometimes complain about the influx of “city-folk” moving into fancy, new rural suburbs and obstructing farming and other traditional rural activities.
But the blame game is a cop out. The real reason we are losing Loudoun’s rural areas is that the county’s Zoning Ordinance currently makes it perfectly legal and, in fact, creates powerful financial incentives for developers to convert farms and open spaces into residential subdivisions. There is a vast disconnect between the effect of these zoning regulations and the intent of the county’s rural policies.
We the people are ultimately responsible for fixing this problem. The purpose of zoning regulations is to balance individual landowners’ rights with the public’s interest in creating a living environment that we can all enjoy. To achieve the correct balance, members of the public have to participate in the county’s decision-making processes.
Many of us shy away from zoning debates because the regulations are complex and seemingly indecipherable for the average citizen. To simply stand aside, however, is to abdicate our responsibility to hold local government accountable for its practices as well as its policies. It abandons the field to developers who have diligently studied the zoning regulations and done their utmost to influence every comma and period to meet their own needs.
The critical questions for rural Loudoun are, in fact, clear and straightforward. They center around the Zoning Ordinance’s rules for “cluster subdivisions,” which allow developers to build large residential subdivisions on former farms and other rural land.
The current cluster subdivision zoning rules allow them to build one new residence for every five acres of land in the north of the county. On a 100-acre property, this, adds up to 20 houses, 18 of which can be “clustered” into a compact development that may look no different than a typical neighborhood in Fairfax. Those 18 houses and their septic fields can be constructed on prime farmland, where it is always cheaper for the developer to build.
The appropriate size for our rural cluster subdivisions, however, is not written in stone. Under Virginia law, it is up to county governments to determine what rules should apply. Neighboring Prince William County allows only half as many clustered houses in their own rural areas as we allow in the northern parts of rural Loudoun. To our west, Clarke County allows even fewer.
To limit rural residential growth more effectively, the county needs to revise the zoning rules to reduce the number of houses that can be built in a rural cluster subdivision, as Prince William and Clarke have already done. Just as important is a requirement that developers not destroy prime farmland.
The county is in the process of re-writing the Zoning Ordinance, with the express purpose of ensuring that it conforms with the Comprehensive Plan. This offers an ideal opportunity to fix the discrepancy between our strong rural preservation policies and our weak rural zoning regulations.
Recently, developers and others who benefit from Loudoun’s current cluster zoning rules have been hard at work lobbying county supervisors to maintain the status quo, which would benefit their own interests while paving the way for continued degradation of our rural areas. Everyone is of course free to defend their individual interests.
However, the rest of us need to step back and consider the cumulative impact this would have on our livelihoods, our quality of life, and the legacy we are leaving for our children and future generations. To sustain our farms and tourism businesses, preserve rural scenery, keep our history alive, and avoid worsening traffic nightmares and higher taxes, we need to reduce the size of rural cluster subdivisions.
Now is the time to let our supervisors know what we think. They will listen if we choose to speak. Please call or write to specifically ask them to reduce the size of rural cluster subdivisions and to establish effective regulations to preserve our remaining prime farmland.