SRL: The Battle Over Rt. 15—Harbinger of Things to Come

By John Ellis, Save Rural Loudoun

Angry interventions at the Feb. 1 Board of Supervisors meeting demonstrate why the county must act soon to reduce projected residential growth in Loudoun’s rural areas. 

In that meeting, a dozen or so residents of the recently built rural subdivisions surrounding Lucketts bitterly protested the traffic congestion and dangerous driving conditions on Rt. 15 north of Leesburg and demanded that the county move forward immediately with the proposed $400 million expansion project on that road. Any further delays, they said, would make county supervisors responsible for future traffic injuries or deaths. They condemned “special interests” that continue to raise concerns about the potential impacts of the project on the environment, local historic sites, and Lucketts’ small businesses.

This is just the first of many such conflicts that are set to emerge in rural Loudoun in the coming years. The source of the trouble is clear: County zoning regulations allow too many new residences to be built in areas with narrow, low-capacity rural roads and other limited public infrastructure and services. The county estimates that each new rural residence generates an average of ten more vehicle trips per day on the local road system.

Between 2000 and 2015, the area around Lucketts experienced the most rapid residential growth of all Loudoun’s rural areas, more than doubling its population. Rt. 15 and connecting rural roads did not have the capacity to provide the same level of service to so many new residents, especially when the high volume of traffic from Maryland was also increasing. 

This problem is rapidly expanding. In the past decade, residential growth has shifted to other parts of rural Loudoun. Between 2010 and 2015, northwest Loudoun accounted for 35% of all residential growth in rural Loudoun. Between 2015 and 2020, that share rose to 70%. As a result, similar conflicts have begun to emerge around Waterford, Hillsboro, Lincoln, Bluemont, Philomont, and other small towns and historic villages. 

The narrow rural roads around and through these communities are already heavily congested. Continued rapid residential growth, combined with large volumes of interstate traffic with Maryland and West Virginia, will make them even worse. 

Based on current zoning densities, the county staff projects that “by right” residential development could add another 10,000 houses and generate 100,000 additional vehicle trips per day from Loudoun’s rural areas alone. This does not include the anticipated growth within the incorporated towns of Hamilton, Purcellville, Round Hill, Lovettsville, and Middleburg. 

Everywhere in western Loudoun, the rural road system does not have enough capacity to maintain expected levels of service for the projected increases in new residences and traffic volumes.

The county government has two options. One option, the current status quo, is to do nothing more to slow residential growth in rural areas. If it stays on this path, the county will be forced to continually scramble to catch up with the inevitable demand for bigger roads and other public services, as it is currently doing in the Lucketts area. 

The fiscal cost to county taxpayers of sticking with this option would dwarf the Rt. 15 project, amounting to billions of dollars. It would also spell the end of local farming, rural tourism, sources of clean water, carbon-absorbing woodlands, wildlife habitat, historic sites, and scenery, and all the other benefits of Loudoun’s remaining rural areas.

But it is not too late to take a different path. 

Loudoun’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan states that the county’s policy is to “limit residential development” in rural areas in order, among other things, “to minimize traffic impacts and reduce the demand for additional public facilities and services.” The county government is currently in the process of reviewing and revising its entire Zoning Ordinance with the aim of bringing it into alignment with the county’s policy vision.

This “zoning re-write” provides the Board of Supervisors with a last chance opportunity to fix the problem of over-development of rural areas and avoid future conflicts like the current battle over Rt. 15. As part of this process, the county can and should reduce the maximum residential densities permitted in new rural subdivisions to ensure that the rural population does not out-grow the available public infrastructure.

Of course, pro-growth interests will lobby intensely against this second option, arguing that it would deny large landowners’ “right” to high-density rural development. They will continue to insist, in other words, on their right to impose huge new administrative and fiscal burdens on the county government and its taxpayers so that they can reap more profits from the destruction of Loudoun’s remaining rural areas. 

Under this powerful political pressure, county supervisors would undoubtedly face a major challenge if they chose to decisively implement the rural policy adopted in the Comprehensive Plan. It would certainly be easier to avoid short-term controversy and pass along the inevitable costs to future supervisors and citizens. 

For the sake of the county’s taxpayers, of every citizen who values our farms, natural environment, history, scenery, and other rural assets, and of future generations, we hope they will stand up to the task of fixing the problem while it is still fixable.

(Submitted by John Ellis on behalf of the board of directors of Save Rural Loudoun. Save Rural Loudoun is a non-partisan, nonprofit, grassroots organization that advocates for preservation of Loudoun County’s rural heritage.)

25 thoughts on “SRL: The Battle Over Rt. 15—Harbinger of Things to Come

  • 2022-02-10 at 8:13 am
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    These are all very good point, but until Maryland agrees to widen the bridge all we are doing is creating more bottle necks. A bridge over the Potomac from Rt 28 will never happen and like most things Loudoun does it will just cost us more money in taxes.

    • 2022-02-10 at 10:25 pm
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      If you travel part-way north in Pennsylvania along US 15 and into New York you will see signs that say “Future I-99.” There is a plan to convert US 15 from Rochester all the way to Charlottesville into I-99. What’s stopping it? LOUDOUN COUNTY, VIRGINIA. Specifically, the stretch from Point of Rocks, MD, to Leesburg, VA. Every other part of it… including Maryland… is ready to pull the trigger.

      • 2022-02-18 at 12:40 pm
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        I-99 exists but only in central Pennsylvania.
        The block on any Potomac river crossing has always been Maryland. Do you have any references to this proposal?
        Virginia & Loudoun county wanted to make Rt 28 into an outer beltway but Maryland did not want a ridge there.

  • 2022-02-10 at 9:27 am
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    Mr. Ellis’ approach to down zoning for “New” subdivisions does not address the zoning and corresponding tax breaks owners of large parcels which are currently occupied by residences enjoy. Good for the goose as they say should be good for the gander. Ensuring all similarly situated property is zoned equally, whether vacant or in land use should be his goal.

  • 2022-02-10 at 9:43 am
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    For clarity sake, the expansion of Route 15 north is due primarily to commuter traffic from Maryland. Changing zoning laws would not impact that particular road enough to reduce congestion and improve safety. This specific project should not be delayed any further with diversions such as rezoning.

    • 2022-02-11 at 1:17 am
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      Yes, most of the traffic on Route 15 comes from Maryland. But we’re setting Loudoun residents up for trouble when we build too many houses along roads that we know can’t give them the service they expect.

  • 2022-02-10 at 10:16 am
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    The residents in the developments that want RT 15 widening remind me of the folks that move next to an airport and complain about the noise. Route 15 could use improvement, but not 4 lanes of improvement. Why is safety used as an excuse? There are many other roads in Loudoun that have many more accidents reported and some of these are already 4 lane.

  • 2022-02-10 at 10:37 am
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    Did the owners/renters of the recently built rural subdivisions not have an understanding of the Rt 15 issues when they moved in?

    While I would like to see Rt 15 widened, it will simply reduce traffic coming towards Leesburg and not the other way. It will come at a cost to exceed the $400m mentioned, as most projects do. If the Rt 7 widening is any example it won’t be completed until 2030, I plan to be retired and gone by then.

  • 2022-02-10 at 11:10 am
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    It’s obvious that “property rights” are a nuisance to the author that need to be reigned in by implementing more rules and regulations. The question of property rights in Western Loudoun has nothing to do with “high-density rural developments”. If the author had done his job (or was truthful), he would know that “high-density rural developments” are not permitted in Western Loudoun. The reality is that many property owners are already negatively impacted by existing regulations, some of which (like the MDOD) are unconstitional and should be abolished. Special interest groups like “Save Rural Loudoun” will only be happy if all wineries and breweries have been shut down, everyone lives in “unit” near a metro station and all SUVs and trucks have been replaced by buses.

    • 2022-02-11 at 1:01 am
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      This comment implies that all landowners have the same development rights. But the County Zoning Ordinance heavily discriminates between landowners in the northern part of Loudoun and landowners in the southern part, allowing those in the north to build many more houses than is permitted in the south. This is resulting in the construction of dense rural subdivisions in the north (tightly packed clusters of houses, sometimes with more than 20 in a cluster). These are of course not as dense as in urban areas, but still allow the local population to exceed the capacity of the available public infrastructure and services. Save Rural Loudoun loves our rural wineries and breweries and wants them to thrive. But they’ll be in big trouble if the surrounding countryside is no longer rural.

  • 2022-02-10 at 11:15 am
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    The arguments against improvement remind me why we have a privately built and maintained toll road. The need was there, but NIMBY’s stopped local government from doing what needed to be done. Maybe the company that built the Greenway should think about building a toll road paralleling US15?

  • 2022-02-10 at 11:17 am
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    This is a crucial point…that we ALL pay the costs of Greenfield sprawl development in perpetuity. A little foresight goes a long way. The status quo of where food is produced in the US also probably won’t be the status quo much longer. Water availability (among many other current and potential issues) in the west and southwest are going to mean food production is going to need to come back east and Loudoun’s soils are some of the highest quality around. We just need to make sure they are still available to help feed our neighbors in Loudoun and across the region.

    As far as tax breaks for large parcels goes. Only the land thats actually in ag, open space, or forest qualifies for land use tax deferral. The homesite, lawn, buildings, septic field, driveways all are taxed at the regular residential rate. There is no tax deferral on the residential portion of a property. A a deferral is just that…when and if the land is subdivided or goes out of production in the case of ag land use, rollback taxes have to be paid, either by the original landowner, or the developer. There is also no zoning difference, most all land in western Loudoun outside of the towns is either zoned AR-1in northwestern Loudoun (enabling one home per 5 acres with cluster development), or AR-2 (one home per 15 acres with cluster development) in Southwestern Loudoun. The reasons why southern Loudoun soils were apparently more worth protecting was definitely a political decision back in the early 2000s not an agricultural, environmental, or land use planning one.

  • 2022-02-10 at 11:43 am
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    We had an issue at Bles Park I guess we were too far to the east for SRL!

    • 2022-02-10 at 4:55 pm
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      Save Rural Loudoun did in fact advocate for protecting Bles park as well back in January.

    • 2022-02-11 at 1:06 am
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      Bob, Save Rural Loudoun joined many other local organizations in asking the Board of Supervisors to preserve Bles Park’s natural areas. Unfortunately, the Board didn’t agree with us. We care about preservation in both eastern and western Loudoun. Please don’t criticize us without checking. Thanks!

      • 2022-02-11 at 4:37 pm
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        Funny I was on those threads night and day and didn’t see any comments by SRL, Pec, …

        • 2022-02-15 at 11:57 am
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          You never missed a chance to bash the PEC and SRL back in the day while playing your ‘neglected Eastern Loudoun” card when you lived and served here, why should now be any different?

  • 2022-02-10 at 12:26 pm
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    It is simpler than the article implies. Route 15 is an artery and all the capillary equivalents which would allow drivers to get off Route 15 north of Leesburg are under-maintained, narrow, gravel roads! Is that really hard to rectify? Second, the state under budgets VDOT so they can’t even maintain the ditches on the sides of these NARROW, GRAVEL roads. In one case the trees above are not trimmed either and a driver died as a result. We have a BOS who think it justifies their position to hire equity focused historians even though most of Loudoun didn’t even grow up here while ignoring the obvious traffic caused deaths on this road. Maybe as we approach the next local election they will realize that maybe this time the majority of Loudoun registered voters will actually show up! 🙂

    • 2022-03-05 at 11:09 pm
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      What are the statistics on RT 15 deaths north of Leesburg? Number of accidents reported? Time period?

  • 2022-02-10 at 10:00 pm
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    Spending 400 million to four lane Route 15 even a foot, is a waste of money. Maryland has proved over and over that they are smarter than Virginia which has their feet mired in the 19th century. Maryland knows better than to ruin their bucolic Frederick County so that it looks like “Lousy Done County.” Flying into Dulles from the northern approach, shows the stark realistic difference between the farms of Maryland and the chock-a-block crammed plastic sided houses in LoCo. Maryland will never build a bridge across the Potomac at Point of Rocks, so any widening of Route 15 is only going to kick the can down the road, in this case the “can” is a new choke point. Common sense just tells you that wherever this four laning ends will create the very same situation we have now just north of Leesburg. Instead of wasting the 400 million to four lane Route 15 use it to improve what we have to make it safer. And BOS, stop approving more and more houses on or near Route 15. There is no law that says people have to live in Loudoun County! Government should not be providing for housing for future generations. Take care of who lives here now.

  • 2022-02-11 at 8:06 am
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    The balance of the parcel in land use is still zoned for housing. The tax breaks for those parcels should be eliminated or the zoning eliminated, one or the other. But of course his isn’t, he wants everyone else to subsidize his “rural” lifestyle.

    • 2022-02-18 at 3:02 pm
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      This is disinformation. “Rural lifestyles” are not subsidized. Taxes on residential housing in rural areas are the same as anywhere else.

      On the other hand, building multi-lane, high speed roads throughout western Loudoun, providing public water and sewer, and improving other public services to serve a large commuter population would cost taxpayers in eastern Loudoun billions of dollars. That is what they should really be worried about, especially when the data center bonanza peters out.

      There are tax breaks for local farming businesses and for owners of large rural properties who give up their rights to develop and voluntarily put their land into conservation easement. The purpose of the tax breaks for farmers is to help them compete with unsustainable corporate and factory farms elsewhere in the country. The Federal and state conservation credits for folks who voluntarily give up development rights are treated like a charitable deduction.

      The residents of new cluster subdivisions in western Loudoun cannot take advantage of either of these opportunities and will pay the same real estate taxes as you and me.

  • 2022-02-11 at 9:52 am
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    Make Rt 15 a gravel road. That will “calm traffic” and make Save Rural Loudoun happy.

  • 2022-02-16 at 10:50 pm
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    So what happens to RT 15 south of Leesburg? It appears there are more accidents south of Leesburg than north. Fatalities? So what if it’s your time it’s your time. As for gravel feeder roads, leave them alone. You move here onto a gravel road and then decide you don’t like it… Tough luck. So why isn’t RT 50 four lane from RT 15 to Middleburg? That hilly curving stretch of road has quite a few accidents reported too.

  • 2022-02-19 at 3:30 am
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    A tax-break is a tax-break is a tax-break. Subsidies for me but not for thee!

    Four lane Route 15 in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York is a wonderful drive through their countryside.

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