By John Ellis, President, Save Rural Loudoun
The Board of Supervisors is considering a proposal by Supervisor Buffington to provide modest financial support to landowners who are considering putting their land under conservation easement. Mr. Buffington suggested that the county set aside $150,000 in next year’s budget for this program.
In the board’s initial discussion, several important questions were raised that will need to be resolved before supervisors reach a final decision. One supervisor asked, for example, whether rural preservation could save taxpayers’ money as much as the advocates have claimed.
There are two dimensions to this question: (1) how do new rural subdivisions affect the county’s capital investment costs? and (2) how do they affect the county’s operating costs?
The draft Comprehensive Plan projects that residential density in our rural areas will increase by at least 60 percent over the next 20 years, more than doubling in some areas. The supervisor pointed out, however, that the county has no plans to build additional schools, fire and rescue stations, or other capital facilities there. This led him to assume that the existing public facilities must be adequate for a rural population that is twice as large as it is today.
This is a truly heroic assumption. Consider the current conditions on our rural roads, for example. Readers are all acutely aware of how heavily congested and increasingly dangerous they are. This is generating increased pressure to build more multi-lane highways over farms and scenic byways, regardless of how much that might encourage builders to put in more subdivisions—bringing in more cars and creating still more congestion. The county’s FY 2019 budget already includes $2.7 million to expand rural roads over the next five years. If the rural population continues to rise as fast as the county projects, the demand for more taxpayer-funded highways will undoubtedly increase just as rapidly.
The same is true for the county school system. As Loudoun Nowreported Aug. 15: “The Loudoun County School Board got some unwelcome news Tuesday that they’ll need several more school sites in the next 20 years than they had initially planned.” It turns out that School Board planners had not been aware of the county’s growth projections, which would require them to increase their capital investment budgets significantly. To the extent that population growth is directed to rural areas, the cost to the taxpayers may be even higher, since Virginia law only allows the county to accept offsetting “proffers” from private sector developers, including proffers for new schools, when their projects are located in designated urban areas.
Using the county’s standard budgeting factors, Save Rural Loudoun estimates that the capital investment costs of new schools, emergency response, police and other public facilities needed to accommodate the county’s current projections for rural residential growth would be about $195 million. This does not include the county’s proportion of the costs for the new or expanded roads or any debt service costs the county might incur to make these investments. It also assumes that the county will continue to provide no public water or sanitation services to the rural population, a policy that may be difficult to maintain as the new suburban areas in the west become increasingly indistinguishable from the suburbs in the east.
These capital costs would be substantial. The annual operating costs to the county would be even greater. Even if more cars can be packed onto the same roads and more children can be crowded into the same schools, the county still must hire more deputies, more first responders, more teachers and administrators, and other staff in order to provide a larger population with an acceptable quality of public services. Based on data obtained from the county, we estimate that the cost of providing these services to each rural residence exceeds the real estate revenues currently paid by at least $4,000 per year. If we accept the county’s current growth projections, the additional operating costs that would need to be covered by county taxpayers would amount to about $360 million over the next twenty years.
Counting both capital and annual operating expenses, therefore, Loudoun taxpayers will need to come up with at least $550 million more over the next two decades if residential densities in our rural areas increase as much as projected. These costs are directly tied to the rural population and are, therefore, an inevitable consequence of continued conversion of our remaining farms, fields and forests into residential subdivisions. The only question is whether the county’s current projections for increased rural density can be constrained.
One way to do that is for the county to promote conservation easements, which reduce the amount of rural land available for new residential developments. If the county provides $25,000 to help a landowner cover the legal and administrative costs of an easement on land in which 10 homes would otherwise have been built, it would save about $40,000, on average, in operating costs—a 38 percent return on the county’s investment. The more land that is set aside in this manner, the greater the savings for the county’s taxpayers. Of course, there are many other good reasons to provide rural land. But just from this narrow, fiscal perspective, county support for conservation easements is clearly a good deal for everyone.