Supervisors Poised to Vote on Land Conservation Program

After years of debate, county supervisors are poised to vote on a pair of conservation programs that could permanently protect the county’s rural land from development while still letting owners realize some of its value.

County supervisors on Tuesday, delayed a vote on a plan that would reestablish a Purchase of Development Rights program, and launch a study of a Transfer of Development Rights program. Both programs allow landowners in designated areas to separate their development rights from their land and sell those rights, permanently blocking development on that land.

Loudoun has had a Purchase of Development Rights program before, in which the county government buys and retires development rights, leaving the land under conservation easement. 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.

County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) in 2019 attempted to put that program back on the table, but it was voted down by the Republican majority on the Board of Supervisors at the time. According to her office, when that program was running, it 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, such as conservation grants or state or federal funding. But the new Board of Supervisors has been more receptive to the idea, with the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee working on the topic for months.

Transfer of Development Rights would see landowners directly or indirectly selling those rights to landowners in other designated receiving areas of the county. That idea also already has a foothold in Loudoun: it is briefly referenced in the county’s 2019 comprehensive plan 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.”

The previous Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors voted down proposals to include those programs in the comprehensive plan in more detail than that.

Those ideas again faced some opposition on the current board from eastern supervisors who worried about the impact of allowing yet more development in their districts without normal zoning and proper processes. A county report prepared for supervisors mentions undeveloped areas of the county’s eastern Suburban Policy Area, small parts of the Transition Policy Area designated now for compact or mixed-use development, and towns and the Joint Land Management Areas surrounding them as possible receiving areas for that density. If supervisors are to pursue a transfer of development rights program, they will have to figure out where those receiving areas will be. 

But there is an alternative to allowing more houses in the county’s east and around towns: supervisors and county planners have also discussed creating a formula to convert residential development rights sold in the west into commercial development purchased rights in the east. 

There are also concerns about the program’s possible impact on the county’s affordable housing efforts. Currently, the county’s affordable dwelling unit program is supported by proffer agreements with developers. If developers can get additional development density through buying those rights rather than negotiating a rezoning, county planners have warned it could mean they no longer have to provide Affordable Dwelling Units.

The Transportation and Land Use Committee has recommended supervisors set county staff to work designing a purchase of development rights program, and to order a market study to evaluate the feasibility of a transfer program, estimated to cost $355,000.

Supervisors were scheduled to vote on those proposals at their meeting Tuesday, but deferred the vote until their next meeting with two members out. Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) was recently married, and Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) is recovering from an injury. A vote is now expected on Oct. 20.

3 thoughts on “Supervisors Poised to Vote on Land Conservation Program

  • 2020-10-07 at 3:07 pm
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    Why aren’t the state conservation programs good enough? I’m not sure what adding a county layer is going to add.

  • 2020-10-07 at 4:17 pm
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    So the taxpayers in the east will pay the wealthy landowners in the west to not develop there land. Millionaires and Billionaires who will never develop their land will now be paid to not develop their land. Just think the single mother of three living in an apartment in sterling will pay people like the Melons and Mars who own thousands of acres of horse country. Does anyone really think the uber wealthy in the west will develop their land? How come Democrats alway talk about being for the “little people” but actually giving huge windfalls to millionaires and billionaires at the expense of the regular taxpayer.

  • 2020-10-09 at 7:47 am
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    “LifetimeLoudouner,” As you surely know, having lived here, housing development on farmland costs Loudoun taxpayers a great deal more than the taxes each residence brings in–in roads, services, and schools–as the tangible costs, and as the intangible ones, lower quality of life (e.g., congestion, school crowding and boundary changes), more pollution, water demand, etc. Looking over the river at western Frederick County, Maryland, the rural land preserved through their vigorous and popular program has allowed the productive landscape there to keep being productive: hay, grain, livestock, orchards. That land needs very little in the way of services. And as you surely must know too, a very strong majority of Loudoun citizens want the west preserved and growth slowed. It makes economic sense.

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