County supervisors have formally launched work on a zoning ordinance amendment seeking to preserve western Loudoun’s best agricultural soils.
Loudoun’s existing cluster zoning option was meant to protect green space by permitting developers in western Loudoun to build more homes than normal zoning would permit, if they built them on smaller lots and left most the land in open space. But it ended up backfiring—the best soil for farming is also the best soil for septic systems, and those clustered developments, agricultural interests have warned, end up taking up the usable farmland and leaving less-arable land.
“Once you do that, you’re never going to be farming on that again. And so what we don’t want to have is to lessen the amount of farmable soils that we have left in Loudoun County,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) before the June 21 vote.
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) pointed out the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found Loudoun is losing farmland at a faster rate than Virginia or the country at large. The most recent 2017 Census of Agriculture found that Loudoun had lost 10% of its farmland over the previous five years, compared to 6% statewide and 1.6% nationwide in that time.
“We are losing our farmland, our prime agricultural land, at an astounding rate right now,” Randall said.
Supervisors first started looking into reworking the county’s cluster zoning rules in 2020, but last week passed a Resolution of Intent to Amend, the first formal step to actually changing county zoning, bolstered in part by policies in the new county General Plan. After their unanimous vote, the county staff will get to work writing new cluster zoning language intended to also protect those prime agricultural soils.
They were more divided on a proposal from Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) to analyze the zoning amendment’s possible impact on the value of that land, and whether it could disincentivize landowners placing land into conservation easement. He argued the zoning amendment could decrease the value of land eligible for cluster zoning, and that decreasing the land value could decrease the incentive to place it into permanent conservation easement, which permits an income tax credit of 40% of the value of the land.
“The difference between this motion that we’ve asked staff to go and look at, and the conservation easement is, conservation easements are permanent. They will last forever. They will be far beyond my lifetime, my children’s lifetime, et cetera. The next board can ultimately just change this [zoning back if they want to,” Kershner said.
Supervisors agreed only to evaluating whether the zoning would discourage creating conservation easements, not property value impacts. Some argued the topic was too broad to come up with useful results—and Buffington said the language could be used to sink the cluster zoning work. He said, “there’s a lot going on behind the scenes here,” and called the language “a poison pill.”
“This language is being added from folks who want to add it, who are against anything on actually protecting prime ag soils so they can kill anything, any changes,” he said. “You can use these arguments, if this language is in here, to kill any recommended changes that would come forward in the future. And that’s why this is being added.”
Supervisors voted 3-4-2 on studying the potential impacts on land values, defeating that study, with Buffington, Randall and Supervisors Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) and Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) opposed; Kershner, Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) and Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run) in favor and Supervisors Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) abstaining. Supervisors approved the request for information on whether the cluster zoning changes my disincentivize conservation easements 5-4, with Briskman, Buffington, Turner and Umstattd opposed.