Cluster zoning, which in Loudoun allows developers to build more houses on a plot of land than under a conventional grid-lot pattern, was intended as a way to protect more rural land as it develops. But more recently, conservation groups and others have expressed concern that it can do the opposite—clustering houses on the most arable land and conserving only land undesirable for farming.
Both farmers and homebuilders want to use the same soil—the same soil that makes the best farmland also percolates well for septic systems. Loudoun County staff members, at county supervisors’ direction, are working to update the cluster zoning regulations to try to restore them to their original purpose: protecting western Loudoun’s agricultural roots, figuratively and literally.
“Currently, when lots are clustered, what we’re seeing is, the houses go on the prime agricultural soils, and everything else is just left but prime soils are gone,” Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said during a July 21 Transportation and Land Use Committee. “And so once a house goes on the prime soils and the prime soils can’t be farmed any more, it’s extremely unlikely that that house is going to be turned back into a cornfield.”
When a cluster-zoned subdivision is laid out, the rest of the land is put into a “rural economy lot.”
“When the subdivisions are done, the cluster subdivisions are laid out, the rural economy lots are put into an area that don’t have soils that support agriculture,” said Zoning Administrator Mark Stultz. “Then you have people coming in purchasing those lots, since they’re called ‘rural economy’ thinking they can do that.”
The work has also raised concerns among some farmers, who worry pushing development onto less-desirable land would reduce the value of their land overall, making it harder for them to get loans they need to stay in business. Others have worried reducing land value could also make it less feasible to put that land under conservation easement, a permanent protection against development.
County staff members told supervisors they have conducted 10 virtual outreach sessions, with approximately 129 participants, and collected more than 300 comments. They’ve also reached out to groups ranging from the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association and Dulles Area Association of Realtors to the Piedmont Environmental Council and Loudoun County Equine Alliance.
At their outreach sessions, county staff members gathered a range of suggestions, such as prohibiting HOA restrictions which can forbid farming, reviewing county zoning for appropriate uses for that land, meeting with developers earlier in the process, and requiring preserving at least 80% of prime soils when laying out clustered developments.
Supervisors and the staff at that committee meeting noted, however, that while many different changes to regulations are on the table, reducing overall development density is not, nor is deleting cluster zoning altogether.
“We do not want to put the regulations in place so that they are so strict that someone can’t develop their property,” said Planning and Zoning Director Alaina Ray. “That is not the intent behind this.”
“Loudoun has a rich history of farming, we have a lot of farmers that want to farm, and the farms and open spaces in western Loudoun County is a lot of what attracts people to Loudoun County,” Buffington said.