A proposed amendment to Loudoun’s comprehensive plan that would allow central water and sewer to connect to publicly owned property in the Rural Policy Area, but next to the Transition Policy Area, has raised concerns among planning commissioners who worry it may open the gates to development in the west.
Currently, except for in towns, Loudoun County does not allow central water and sewer connections in the rural western areas covered by its Rural Policy Area. It is seen as one way to discourage excessive development of the counties rule areas. Those connections are allowed in the Transition Policy Area which divides and buffers the county’s rural west and suburban east.
A proposal from county supervisors in front of the Planning Commission now would allow central water in sewer connections to publicly owned properties in the Rural Policy Area that directly adjoined the Transition Policy Area. It is targeted at a specific site along Evergreen Mills Road, where the county has 173 acres under contract to purchase for a new middle school.
It is meant as a cost saving and permit-expediting measure for that property, but planning commissioners and some residents worry it clears one more barrier to development in the west.
“This seems to break an historic policy the county’s tried to maintain over the years, which has unfortunately been weakened over the years,” said Planning Commissioner and former Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning John Merrithew (Sterling).
“Infrastructure is the predicate to development,” said Commissioner Forest Hayes (At Large). “So we all know that once the water is there—today it’s for the schools, but once it’s there, once the infrastructure’s in place—we could do other things with it in the out years.”
County staff members told the Planning Commission they have not evaluated the costs and feasibility of serving the site with a well and septic system.
“I would think that in light of the potential precedent we’re setting here by extending utilities into the Rural Policy Area, and the sort of slippery slope that we’re travelling down, that it would be incumbent on the county to actually study that comparative cost while it’s in the study period,” said Chair Eric Combs (Ashburn).
He also pointed out the county hasn’t yet finalized the purchase of the property.
“We’re being asked to initiate a [comprehensive plan amendment] which is going to set a precent for all sorts of other potential opportunities to encroach into the Rural Polices Area, and I’m wondering if that might appear premature to folks who have considered it in light of the fact that the contact hasn’t actually gone hard yet, and the county doesn’t own the property yet,” Combs said.
However others—including residents nearby the property—have argued the area should be in the Transition Policy Area already. County planners and the previous Planning Commission had proposed adding that area, which is surrounded on three sides by the Transition Policy Area, to the transition area during the county’s work on the new comprehensive plan. Supervisors elected not to do that amid consternation from some quarters about pushing the county’s development boundaries west.
But because the area is already surrounded on three sides, William Steedly said at the public hearing Tuesday, Sept. 22, “I do not believe extending central utilities into this hole will create the threat of growth of further central utilities out into the Rural Policy Area.”
Rather, Steedly argued, there are two reasonable possibilities—either move the entire area into the Transition Policy Area, or don’t put lighted sports fields and schools in the middle of it. The property has also been eyed as a possible site for more schools after the planned middle school.
Some commissioners agreed with that view.
“This is really what happens when the previous Board of Supervisors decided that they wanted to revise and review the entire comprehensive plan, and then removed two thirds of the entire county from that and say ‘you can’t do anything with that,’” said Commissioner Jeff Salmon (Dulles), who both served on the previous Planning Commission and chaired the stakeholders group that worked on the first draft of the new comprehensive plan that passed last year. “’Don’t touch the Rural Policy Area, don’t touch the Transition Policy Area, only look at this one third.’ But it’s comprehensive, and this is what you get.” He suggested the comprehensive plan amendment should instead be to move that long-debated area into the Transition Policy Area.
“If the board wants to see that part of the county be in the Transition Policy Area, then they should do that, bring that motion, but not kind of do it in a de facto way through this,” Hayes said.
However some also said they felt obligated to vote in favor of the amendment because supervisors proposed it.
Commissioners ultimately voted unanimously to send the comprehensive plan amendment to another meeting for more work.
“We do need to step back and take a look at this and say, is it being done the right way, and so far I don’t think it is,” said Commissioner Mark Miller (Catoctin).
In fact, there may be another way the amendment could open up central water and sewer for homes in the Rural Policy Area—supervisors have discussed allowing homes on publicly owned parcels to help tackle Loudoun’s housing cost problem.