County supervisors have voted to lay the groundwork to resurrect the Purchase of Development Rights program, a land conservation tool that would see them spend county dollars to permanently protect some properties from development.
In a purchase of development rights program, the county could buy the development rights from a piece of land, permanently separating those rights from that land an retiring them. In theory, that would allow the landowner to realize some of the value from their land’s development potential while also permanently protecting that land from actual development.
In fact, Loudoun has had a Purchase of Development Rights program before. That has existed in Loudoun’s ordinances since 1999 but has been unfunded since 2004 when a newly elected Board of Supervisors at its first meeting reversed much of the previous board’s planning, particularly around conservation.
And on Oct. 20, after years of debate across the previous board’s term and into the current term, supervisors voted 8-1 to resurrect the program with a brand-new ordinance and $30,000 worth of marketing to get the word out.
“I think this is a very prudent step forward in order for us to begin to have direct involvement in protecting some of our land resources all over the county,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn), who chairs the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee, which has examined the two programs over months.
If supervisors decide to fund the program, county staff members say they will also need to hire more people to run the program. How many will depend on how that ordinance shapes up, and how much supervisors are willing to invest on the program.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), who has long pushed for some type of conservation program, called it “another tool in the toolbox” to preserve areas of western Loudoun, matching the new county comprehensive plan’s stated goals to protect those rural and open spaces.
Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), while supporting the work to draft an ordinance and begin marketing the program, said he was skeptical of spending taxpayer money.
“I love the concept, I think it’s great, I just think we have to be good stewards of the money,” Kershner said.
He pointed out that, depending on how the ordinance is written, supervisors may even be able to decide each year how much money to put into the program.
Only Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) voted against the program.
“We’re going to be in a fiscally difficult situation, I think, beyond this next year, and ultimately for this to work as a true PDR, it’s going to take cash investment into properties,” Letourneau said. “If we budget say in [Fiscal Year 2022 or 2023] $5 million for a PDR, and we have $10 million worth of applicants, how do we determine who gets the money? And that’s when some of the places that have had these issues and had this program, that’s when they’ve got into problems.”
Transfer Program Blocked
At the same meeting, supervisors narrowly turned down—at least for now—a Transfer of Development Rights program, in which landowners in designated sending areas would be allowed to sell those development rights to landowners in designated receiving areas, moving those development rights two other, targeted parts of the county.
As discussed in committee, that program would likely involve creating a formula to convert residential development rights sold in the west into commercial development rights purchased in the east.
While asking his colleagues to support a $60,000 market study on the program, Turner acknowledged it comes with many complications.
That included concerns it would compete with the county’s own Affordable Dwelling Unit program and proffer negotiations, both of which rely on developers coming to the Board of Supervisors to negotiate rezoning for higher density development. Buying development rights from other landowners could sidestep that process.
With the program likely designed to convert residential development into commercial, Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) also pointed out that a number of business developers are expected to ask the county to rezone to residential development, as commercial property values plummet while residential property values continue to climb.
“To be honest, it’s not the right time,” Saines said. “…Even the business developers are not looking at commercial right now.”
The two votes also mark a reversal from the previous Board of Supervisors’ discussions. On the previous board, Transfer of Development Rights had once been the favorite of the two. In February 2019, the Republican majority of the time voted down a push by Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) to restart the purchase program, voting that same night to move the transfer program to committee for further study.
Buffington, who has long pushed for conservation programs in the west including a transfer, was one of the votes against the purchase program at that time.
That board may also have inadvertently steered the county toward a purchase program later that same year, by largely excluding both programs from the comprehensive plan. County planners this year said that under the state laws governing the programs, there is no requirement that a purchase program be mentioned in the county comprehensive plan, while a transfer program would require going through the lengthy process of amending the plan.
And during work on both ideas in the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee this year, more skepticism emerged around the transfer program and its greater complexity.
Letourneau said he remains skeptical about the programs.
“I have a lot of concerns about TDR in particular, because the reality is, we went through a pretty extensive comprehensive plan process,” Letourneau said. “And we, I think, spent a lot of time looking at areas where we could potentially increase density for development, and I don’t think we left anything on the table.”
But the transfer program could be back on the table soon. Supervisors voted it down 4-4-1, with Supervisors Juli Briskman (D-Algonkian), Letourneau, Saines and Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run) opposed and Randall abstaining.
“I have more questions now than I did before, which is not a no, but I need to get some things answered,” Randall said.
If the transfer program study comes back for another vote, nobody else changes their mind, and Randall decides to vote yes, it will have the five votes it needs to pass.