County supervisors have launched an effort to help preserve Loudoun’s remaining farmland through amending the county’s sometimes controversial rural cluster development rules.
In the county’s agricultural zoning districts, developers who plan clustered developments—with most of the land left empty, and homes clustered together, rather than spread evenly across large lots—can put more homes overall on the land.
The cluster option, intended to leave more land undisturbed, has caused concern among conservation and farmland advocates. Developers and farmers compete for the best soils—the soil that makes for the best farmland also makes for the best development, because it percolates well for septic systems. Cluster development has allowed developers to put more homes on the rural west, and concentrate those homes on the best farmland.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) brought forth the initiative
“In 2003, our previous General Plan said that it was important to us as a county to protect our farms, and our prime agricultural soils, and our rural economy, however our zoning was never really subsequently updated to enforce that,” Buffington said. And, he said, projections of Loudoun’s development in the rural area point to losing as much as half of Loudoun’s rural lands to development between 2002 and 2040.
“We’re losing them at the rate of four square miles per year,” Buffington said. “That is really fast, if you think about it.”
The initiative directs county staff members to begin a public process to develop new rules around cluster development, and to prioritize that work to get it done in a timely manner.
“The goal is to make sure that when development happens in rural Loudoun County, it will not be on the most prime agricultural soil [which] actually needs to be set aside for, obviously, growing,” Randall said. “And so that’s the goal for this [board member initiative]. As Mr. Buffington said, we stated the process, it can be a long process, we will have a lot of public input through the process. And so this starts it, it doesn’t end it.”
The proposed changes to county ordinances include requiring a percentage of rural land to be in active agricultural use, requiring a certain percentage of open space in cluster developments to be left in a natural state, setting aside some publicly available land, encouraging contiguous open spaces for larger farmable areas, minimizing new road connections, and other ideas.
The project was lauded by rural advocates.
“Preserving Loudoun’s remaining farmland and countryside benefits the entire county, including by attracting dynamic businesses and a talented workforce, holding down tax rates and putting a brake on traffic congestion,” said John Ellis of Save Rural Loudoun.
John Adams, a farmer and member of the Loudoun Farm Bureau, said Loudoun sits on some of the most fertile land on the East Coast, and which has been identified by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as a top priority.
“This pandemic that we’re all in the midst of has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt the importance of local food security,” Adams said. “And if you think very carefully about the situation nationally, 4 percent of our farms produce two-thirds of our meat, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables across the nation.”
“Global supply chains don’t always meet the need, as we have just recently experienced,” said Avis Renshaw, owner of Lost Corner Farm and Mom’s Apple Pie. “When you think about prime land, you might think you know what it is, but it is not just good soil. It is the confluence of the availability of water, the particular environmental features, et cetera, and Loudoun has that, and it is worth preserving.”