County supervisors have passed a package of rules aimed at increasing the stock of affordable homes and price-controlled Affordable Dwelling Units in Loudoun.
They also decided, for now, not to increase the number of homes that can be built in the county’s Transition Policy Area as part of those affordable housing rules.
Although they launched an Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan in 2019 after finishing the new comprehensive plan, the new zoning rules passed June 2 were part of a project that had been underway since 2017.
The new changes to zoning ordinance also come as another project to rewrite the county’s entire zoning ordinance is underway, expected to wrap up at the end of 2021.
Among the new rules, the minimum size of developments that are required to contribute to the ADU program was decreased; an exemption for structures with at least four stories and an elevator was clarified, with county staff members looking into the possibility of deleting it altogether; a rule allowing developers to build bonus units over normal zoning even if they make a cash-in-lieu payment instead of building ADUs was deleted; cash-in-lieu payments were adjusted up from one-third of the cost of building an ADU to 100 percent of that cost; and accessory dwelling such as mother-in-law cottages are now allowed in more residential areas.
Supervisors however did not pass a proposal that would have allowed a density increase in the number of houses developers could build in large areas of the Transition Policy Area.
It would have allowed developers to build as much as 30 percent more units that zoning law would normally permit, provided an equivalent percentage of those additional units were put into the Affordable Dwelling Unit program. According to county staff, that had the potential to allow up to 300 more units in the Transition Policy Area, which has long served as a buffer between development the county’s suburban and rural zones. That would include up to 120 ADUs.
It would also have marked the second time in months that supervisors increased the allowable development density in that area, with the new comprehensive plan adopted last year increasing the maximum number of allowable units in the Transition Policy Area by 2,180.
The proposal had drawn objections not only from some county supervisors, but also the mayors of Loudoun’s seven incorporated towns.
“If we have learned one thing in Loudoun over the last 20 years, it is that more density does not, and has yet to, equate to affordability,” reads a letter to supervisors from the Coalition of Loudoun Towns, signed by all seven mayors. “Our approach for decades to affordable housing has been disjointed and a failure. We must start thinking, and more importantly, acting differently.”
For years, Loudoun housing prices have continued to climb, even as the county for years has been one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. The letter points out that supervisors, after wrapping up work on a new county comprehensive plan last year, launched work on an Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan to figure out how to address problems with housing cost and availability in Loudoun.
“We are extremely concerned that before that group’s work has even been completed, the County is embarking on the mistakes of the past with considering ad hoc spot zoning to simply add density, thinking it will address the root problems,” the letter reads. “This is being done without the benefit of the study’s work, nor understanding the long-term impacts, where the demand should be focused and what the down sides may be. The old record is playing again; more density, with a few ADUs, that will likely be given a waiver as we have always done.”
When the Board of Supervisors Transportation and Land Use Committee took up the code changes in April, Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) argued against them, pointing out that the Transition Policy Area, which buffers rural west from suburban east, was one of the hottest points of contention during work on the new comprehensive plan.
Supervisors continued that debate during their meeting Tuesday.
“I was persuaded that what this will come down to is a way between affordable housing and building in the Transition Policy Area,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn), who moved to delete the bonus density rule. “We will have to have that discussion, but a more informed discussion will take place after the housing study is complete.”
Third-term Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said the current planning for the Transition Policy Area is already a compromise, and one “that left a lot of people unhappy.”
“So, the idea of adding now—just a few months after we’ve adopted it—more density to that for any reason, is an absolute nonstarter for me,” Letourneau said. He also said it could exacerbate traffic problems in southeastern Loudoun: “I’m telling you right now, unless you guys are going to give me a couple billion dollars—and even then we can’t solve the infrastructure problems that we have.”
But County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said supervisors opposed to another density increase in the Transition Policy Area are not being ‘serious’ about affordable housing.
“If we’re having the same discussions when the housing study comes back, then the message is you’re not really serious about having affordable homes to purchase in the county, which is fine, but let’s just say it and move on,” Randall said.
“I am no convinced after this drill that offering ADUs as a bonus to density is the way to go about building a true affordable housing program,” Turner said. “I think we’re going to have to face the very hard task of saying, we’re are going to have to put some serious county skin in the game in the budget to create a viable affordable housing program, so we’d better be ready for that discussion.”
Supervisors approved the changes on a 8-0-1 vote, with Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) absent.