County supervisors have asked county staff members to figure out whether and how they can require a 500-foot buffer around county waterways including Goose Creek, Catoctin Creek, Goose Creek Reservoir, Beaverdam Reservoir, Broad Run, Bull Run and the Potomac River shoreline.
Loudoun’s waterways have felt the impact of the county’s rapid development—Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) pointed out that a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality report covering water quality conditions across the state from 2013 to 2018 found almost all of Loudoun’s waterways were “impaired,” or falling below standards set for pollution or supporting aquatic life.
An initiative introduced by Turner and supervisors Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run) and Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian), which passed unanimously June 1, seeks to expand a 300-foot buffer around waterways called for in the comprehensive plan by another 200 feet. The item asks county staff how to accomplish a 500-foot buffer around Loudoun waterways, including a 300-foot no-build buffer and a 200-foot transitional buffer.
Although it is not yet clear what a transitional buffer is—a term that is not defined in the comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance or Facilities Standards Manual—the item appears to seek to expand on a policy in the 2019 comprehensive plan, which encourages greenbelts around waterway no-build buffers. Greenbelts are mostly vegetated spaces providing visual separation in the plan. Turner’s office said the item asks county staff to define what a transitional buffer entails.
Although the initiative had unanimous support from the supervisors present, some had doubts. Supervisors Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said they foresaw it becoming a controversial topic.
“I think we’re going to have quite a few properties impacted,” Umstattd said. “I remember before I got on this board a previous effort to expand buffers and that created a lot of dissension.”
She also wondered whether the buffer would actually better protect waterways.
“I don’t know whether we can demonstrate that the addition of 200 additional feet is going to improve stream quality,” Umstattd said. “It sounds like an intuitive thing, but I haven’t seen any science that backs that up.”
“My main concern is private property owners and how that’s going to affect them,” Buffington said. “[…] I’m not worried about how it’s going to affect developers, I’m worried about how it’s going to affect the private property owners who are already on those lots.”
“I agree, we don’t have the science, we don’t know where this is going to lead us, what we have right now is a hodgepodge of probably three or four or five different types of buffers,” Turner said. “And we’re constantly going through the process of trying to sort through which of these applies, which doesn’t apply, and which one can we bend and which one can’t we bend. This is a much clearer, I think, way forward.”
“Someone along the way decided that buffers were a good thing for water quality,” Turner said. “That’s a given premise of all of our existing buffers.”
Supervisors voted 7-0-2, with Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) absent.