After three years of work on a project that may come to define their impact on Loudoun, the outgoing Board of Supervisors finally passed the first new county comprehensive plan in nearly 20 years.
Begun in April 2016 and originally envisioned to take a year and a half to complete, the project ground on until June. Work began in a 26-member stakeholder steering committee, which ended up working on the plan for two years. During that time, both the project manager and the director of planning and zoning left their jobs with the county. Deputy County Administrator Charles Yudd was put in charge of getting the work back on track, newly hired Planning and Zoning Director Alaina Ray dove into the project, and the committee wrapped up work in June 2018, sending it to the Planning Commission.
The product of that body’s work, finished early in 2019, generated massive outcry in Loudoun. The commission had focused on getting as much new housing into the plan as it could, which commissioners and development interests argued was necessary to create more affordable housing. They more than doubled the number of residential units expected to go up in Loudoun, to 56,000, and more than half of that would have been in the Transition Policy Area, which buffers rural west from suburban and urban east and makes up about 7 percent of the county’s total land area.
County supervisors got that 500-page plan in May, determined to reverse much of the commission’s work, and were immediately on the clock. Under state law, they had only 90 days to pass a comprehensive plan from the time the Planning Commission voted on it—although that has no more consequences under the law than the law requiring localities to update their comprehensive plan every five years.
Because supervisors were determined to get the plan approved before the state deadline, they adopted a plan without the benefit of staff-prepared projections of that plan’s impacts. Ultimately, however, county planners projected supervisors had drastically cut the number of new homes that the commission’s draft would have allowed.
The final 2019 Comprehensive Plan is expected to allow only 5,840 more homes in the transition area, 2,180 more than the old plan. Across the county, the plan is expected to allow 40,950 additional homes by 2040, mostly in the suburban east and the county’s planned urban areas arounds its new Metrorail stops. That is 11,490 more homes than the plan it replaced.
The new plan is not expected to allow any more new housing in the rural areas than the old one—although 9,560 more homes are already expected there.
But more than that, the new comprehensive plan was about meeting the challenge of Loudoun’s, and the region’s, continued growth. Different interest groups and citizens sparred over how many new homes should be allowed in Loudoun, how to make homes more affordable, and how to protect Loudoun’s green spaces.
On affordability, the final plan describes the county’s housing affordability problems and the impact that has on people’s livelihoods and on the economy.
It also lays out a number of general strategies, calling for “innovative and flexible regulatory approaches” such as allowing manufactured housing and accessory units in more places, and allowing denser housing development. But supervisors also largely punted on the topic; the same night they voted to approve the new comprehensive plan, they also voted to launch an Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan. That is planned to include a review of all of Loudoun’s housing policies and regulations, and discussions of government programs like down-payment assistance programs, the housing trust fund, and home purchase programs. It is meant to define how the county will address unmet housing needs in a systematic and comprehensive way.
Whether or not that plan works could in part determine whether Loudoun’s success stories continue. Already, Loudouners very often are spending large parts of their income on housing alone, and business owners have said they would like to expand in the county but can’t find employees.
The plan could also decide whether Loudoun’s rural reaches and green spaces stay as popular and attractive as they are today. Although one of the plan’s seven chapters is on “Natural, Environmental, and Heritage Resources,” supervisors left several options for protecting natural resources on the table.
The plan does call for public money towards a network of natural, environmental and “heritage” resources, as well as regulations on new development to help protect some of those resources. But two major programs other counties in Virginia have used to preserve green spaces, a majority of Loudoun supervisors said aren’t right for Loudoun.
In February, long before the plan came to the board, Republican supervisors voted down restarting a program to purchase some landowners’ development rights and retire them, permanently protecting that land from development. Purchase of Development Rights had existed in Loudoun’s books since 1999 but has been unfunded since 2004. According to the office of County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), who proposed restarting the program, that program protected more than 2,545 acres at a cost of $8.9 million, $4.2 million of which was from sources other than county taxpayer money. With the adoption of the new comprehensive plan, that program is off the books.
Another program, Transfer of Development Rights, would allow landowners in certain areas of Loudoun to sell the development rights on their property to landowners in other designated areas, allowing them to both profit off their own land’s development potential and permanently protect it from development.
Transfer of Development Rights is in fact mentioned briefly in the plan, described as one of the “tools available to the County and public and private entities to protect and preserve open space, farms, and natural, environmental, and heritage resources in perpetuity, allowing landowners to retain ownership of their property, while maximizing the economic value of the land.” However, there are no immediate plans to implement such a program in Loudoun.
The ZOO Begins
The work on planning Loudoun’s future continues.
The next step is to put the principles and ideas laid out in the comprehensive plan into law by overhauling the county’s zoning ordinances. Privately, some people have begun referring to the zoning ordinance overhaul by its acronym—ZOO.
Due in part to a complex system of proffers, Loudoun operates with three zoning ordinances. Some parcels are still governed by the 1972 Zoning Ordinance, while others fall under the 1993 ordinances or “Revised 1993” ordinances from 2003.
While the Comprehensive Plan was hammered out mostly in public meetings by the stakeholder steering committee, Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, the more technical work of the Zoning Ordinance Overhaul will be largely internal to county planning staff. It will, however, still incorporate input from various advisory groups, county committees, community and industry groups, and the county’s Zoning Ordinance Action Group. The county will hire consultants, but according to a staff report, they will be limited to technical research and similar tasks.
In fact, the project kicked off already, in October. The new zoning ordinance is expected to come to the Board of Supervisors for review by July 2021.
Some of that work will be focused on making government review and approval more streamlined and efficient, in part by expanding the number of things builders can do without seeking approval from the Board of Supervisors. That is to be balanced by performance standards on that development, to make sure it nonetheless meets the county’s standards for developing in Loudoun.
It also involves reviewing the process for earning legislative approval, which can last months and cost thousands or tens of thousands in fees.
Download the new comprehensive plan at loudoun.gov/compplan and read all of Loudoun Now’s coverage of the new comprehensive plan at LoudounNow.com/compplan.