County supervisors and planning department staffers looking into ways to protect rural Loudoun from development are now leaning toward trading those potential homes for increased commercial opportunities development in the east.
Two programs under consideration now would allow separating development rights from that land and allowing those rights to be purchased, after which they could be retired or applied elsewhere. The program would be intended to allow landowners to make money off of their land’s development potential without converting the property to residential subdivisions.
That can help rural landowners afford to hold onto their land and permanently protect it from development. The other option available to them, placing land under conservation easement, can cost landowners tens of thousands of dollars to set up.
Supervisors have long debated both a Purchase of Development Rights program, in which those development rights would be purchased by the government and retired, and a Transfer of Development Rights program, in which those rights could be purchased in rural areas and applied to allow denser development in other areas. A similar program, Purchase and Retire, works in the framework of Transfer of Development Rights, although the government may be the customer, buying development rights to retire them.
The previous Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors batted down many of those proposals, including largely removing specific reference to them from the new comprehensive plan.
But talks have continued in the Board of Supervisors’ Transportation and Land Use Committee. Where before, Transfer of Development Rights was seen as a way to move residential development from western Loudoun to the east, now they center on turning residential development rights in the west into commercial development rights in the east.
“I think we’re spinning our wheels even continuing to have the discussion of a residential-to-residential sending and receiving area in Loudoun County,” said Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn). He pointed to concerns raised by county planners that the county relies on proffer negotiations with developers seeking a rezoning for both its infrastructure needs and Affordable Dwelling Unit program. Buying development rights could mean a developer would not need to request a rezoning from the county for a big project.
“I believe Loudoun County is more reliant on the proffer system than just about any county in Virginia, and proffers work at exact cross odds to TDRs,” Turner said. “The ADU program also works at cross odds to TDRs. So, we’ve got two practical aspects of our environment here, of our land use environment in Loudoun County, that create two directly competitive mechanism to a residential TDR program. So, we need to stop trying to waste our time trying to cram a square peg in a round hole.”
As discussed among supervisors serving on that committee, a TDR program would require designating sending areas, where development rights are severed, and receiving areas where they are applied. It would also require a formula for converting residential density, which the county measures in units per acre, to commercial density, which the county measures by a parcel’s floor area ratio.
The previous Board of Supervisors, which voted down an effort by County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) to explore starting a Purchase of Development Rights program, may in fact have inadvertently steered the county toward PDRs later that same year by largely excluding both from the comprehensive plan. County planners now say under the state laws governing the programs, there is no requirement that a PDR program be mentioned in the county comprehensive plan, while a TDR program would require going through the lengthy process of amending the plan.
While a PDR program could be up and running in a year, staff members said, a TDR program could take three years, in part because of the time needed for the Comprehensive Plan amendment process and in part because the TDR program is more complex.
County staff members have also found both state and federal funding to help the county pay for a purchase program through matching grants.
The Transportation and Land Use Committee on July 22 unanimously recommended the Board of Supervisors begin the process of establishing a PDR program in Loudoun, and to fund a market study in next year’s budget to examine the viability of a TDR program.