Letter: John Ellis, Save Rural Loudoun

Should Loudoun continue to allow more than twice as much new residential development in its rural areas as is allowed in neighboring Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William counties?

In principle, the county’s rural policies say “no.” The new Comprehensive Plan states that the county will “limit residential growth to protect the land resource for agricultural operations, rural economy uses, and open spaces; minimize traffic impacts; and reduce the demand for additional public facilities and services.” Prior plans had similar language.

In practice, however, the answer seems to be “yes.” Under the current zoning ordinance, adopted 20 years ago by a pro-development Board of Supervisors, rapid rural development is allowed and even encouraged.  

Unless something changes, the county projects that 11,000 more residences may be built in our rural areas. This would more than double the rural population in the northern part of the county and add at least 100,000 more vehicle trips per day to existing traffic congestion on our roads. It would also result in the loss of another 70-80 square miles of farmland – more than half of what currently remains. And the loss would be permanent – once farmland is lost to new development, it is lost forever.

All rural residences rely on private wells for their water supply. As more and more subdivisions are built in Loudoun’s rural west, some existing residents have already seen their wells run dry—forcing them to go through the expensive process of drilling new and deeper wells. The county has no information on how much more underground water is available but continues to act on the assumption that the resources are evenly distributed and infinite. They are not.

The rapid development of Loudoun’s rural areas creates a fiscal time bomb. The principal roads are already at full capacity and traffic congestion in our historic villages is untenable. As a result of excessive development around the village of Lucketts, county taxpayers already are on the hook for more than $200 million to widen Rt. 15 north of Leesburg. If the rest of Loudoun’s rural areas experiences similar growth, the cost of building roads and other public infrastructure and of providing schooling and other public services will be in the billions. Taxpayers in the eastern part of the county would bear the bulk of that burden.

Loudoun would not be facing these threats if our rural zoning were comparable to our neighboring counties. Simply aligning with the zoning that currently applies in Fauquier County, for example, would save hundreds of farms and significantly reduce the pressures on roads, water resources, and the county budget.

The recent outcry over the Goose Creek Overlook project shows that many Loudouners want to protect rural areas and remain concerned about excessive development. What receives less attention is that the reason the Overlook project was proposed – and will continue to move forward with modifications imposed by the County Board of Supervisors – is that it is legally permitted by the current zoning ordinance. Public protests may succeed in altering developers’ plans for this individual project but will not prevent many similar projects from moving forward in the future.

We need a more systemic and long-term solution. This year, we have perhaps the last best opportunity to find it. The county government is in the process of re-writing the entire Zoning Ordinance, including the regulations for subdividing and developing rural land.

Powerful interest groups are already lobbying county supervisors to maintain the existing pro-growth rural zoning. Save Rural Loudoun and other grassroots organizations have provided detailed explanations to the county of the potential consequences of maintaining the status quo and of the need for reform. If we do nothing, farms and other rural Loudoun lands will continue to be rapidly lost to new development. 

The supervisors’ eventual decisions will depend on the extent to which they hear from their constituents. During the “Envision Loudoun” process a few years ago, thousands of citizens urged the county to preserve rural areas and restrain growth and development. The policies in the Comprehensive Plan reflect that perspective. To make those policies a reality, we must insist on parallel zoning reforms and other conservation programs. 

Please call or write to your county supervisors to urge them to adopt rural preservation zoning rules that are at least as strong as our neighboring counties.

John Ellis, Save Rural Loudoun Board of Directors

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