Supervisors Debate Costs of Transfer of Development Rights Program

Almost a year after the Board of Supervisors first voted to research the merits of a Transfer of Development Rights program, members of the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee are now debating the costs of moving development rights out of the county’s rural areas into its urban areas.

The program would allow landowners in rural areas to sell credit for the homes they could build on their land to developers in other areas, permanently protecting that land from development and allowing landowners to make money off their land rights. The Board of Supervisors would designate sending and receiving areas for those development rights.

Surrounding jurisdictions including Frederick and Clarke Counties have the program already, and Prince William County is considering both a Transfer of Development Rights and Purchase of Development Rights Program. But Loudoun’s Planning Commission voted to exclude the program from the county’s new comprehensive plan earlier this year, except for a mention of it as a possible future tool.

Members of the Transportation and Land Use Committee on Thursday were split on whether the program would do more harm than good. Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) said, “it’s almost intense ignorance of the urban policy area and the current zoning that would build confidence in a program like this.”

He said that allowing developers to buy development rights from other landowners would mean the county could not negotiate proffers, capital impact fees, and other development offsets from developers. Those historically have been a major part of how Loudoun pays to provide roads, schools, and other services to new development. And, Meyer said, there is already massive development allowed in the county’s new Urban Policy Area, which is most likely where the receiving area for those development rights will be.

 “I think some of this comes from, I think, mass ignorance of the Urban Policy Area and the current zoning that is already there,” Meyer said. “There are not a lot of opportunities that sending area for increased density. Most of these have already been zoned, and if they come in for a rezoning or they want more units, it’s going to be for a heck of a lot more units, and not 10 or 15 at a time.”

But other supervisors argued the county would be paying the cost of providing services to those homes whether they are developed in the east or the west, and single-family homes on large lots in the west could be much more expensive to serve than apartments and condos in the east.

“The potential impact of a large single-family home in western Loudoun could be potentially have more value, whatever that is, than going into a two-bedroom condo in or around the Metro,” said Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin).

And Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) argued that the future opening of Metrorail could also shift that equation.

“I think we have to start looking at the Metro system itself as being the infrastructure, and I don’t know if we’ve done that,” Umstattd said. “We still tend to be biased towards roads. … I don’t know if road improvements are going to be as essential if we have that major mass transportation system.”

In the time since the county staff was set to study Transfer of Development Rights, the board has hotly debated—and ultimately rejected along party lines—a Purchase of Development Rights program. The county previously had that program, in which the county government would purchase some landowners’ development rights and retire them, permanently protecting that land from development. It has existed in Loudoun’s books since 1999 but has been unfunded since 2004 when a newly elected Board of Supervisors at its first meeting took dramatic steps to reverse much of the previous board’s planning, particularly around conservation.

In February, Meyer said the program “basically ends up being a redistribution of funds from the east to the west” by using taxpayer dollars to protect rural lands. Republican supervisors voted down the proposal.

But Thursday, Meyer said a Purchase of Development Rights program is a better option than Transfer of Development Rights.

“If the goal is preservation, this is not the way to do it,” Meyer said. “A [Purchase of Development Rights] program or an incentive for conservation easements, those are the tools that will help you preserve the west, preserve rural farmland. This, if done poorly, could totally make our infrastructure problems in the east worse, and at best, will be a program that we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop that nobody uses.”

The decisions will be made by a very different board, after newly elected supervisors take their seats in the new year. Meyer predicted the next board is likely to move ahead with the program.

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