The Loudoun County Planning Commission on Tuesday held its first public hearing on the county’s Zoning Ordinance overhaul—although crucial chapters of the new ordinance were not yet ready for the hearing.
The new ordinance is the enforceable regulatory document that implements the policies and vision of the 2019 Comprehensive Plan. And like the comprehensive plan which hadn’t been updated in nearly 20 years, the last complete overhaul of the of the Zoning Ordinance was in 2003.
Since the adoption of the 2019 Comprehensive Plan, the county Zoning Ordinance has not matched the updated general plan, while land development and permit applications have continued to come in.
But the new ordinance’s most debated chapters are still not ready for a public hearing, including ones detailing zoning districts, use standards, overlay districts, environmental standards, and attainable housing rules. Those will all go to a future public hearing. And four Zoning Ordinance updates are being addressed separately from the Zoning Ordinance rewrite: an update to the Airport Impact Overlay District, zoning changes to accommodate a large Dulles Airport solar project, a review of cluster subdivision zoning seeking to better protect prime agricultural soils, and more changes to regulation of short-term residential rentals.
During the hearing Tuesday, development and business interests pushed the commission to loosen the ordinance’s regulations, to give them more flexibility in development.
“Without significant amendments to the draft ordinance, Loudoun will be left with a zoning code that will add significant cost, time and uncertainty into the development process,” said Loudoun Chamber of Commerce Government Relations Manager Theo Stamatis. “The result will undermine not only our own future prosperity, but many of the county’s own priorities.”
Longtime affordable housing developer Kim Hart pointed to the specific issue of parking requirements for affordable housing developments, which he said can be trimmed back even further based on the developments he has been part of. He said small changes to the ordinance can have big impacts.
“The difference between 1.9 parking spaces per unit and 1.5 is about 40 unneeded parking spaces. If a lot of that is structured parking, that’s adding over a million dollars to an affordable housing development,” he said.
Those voices were joined by the Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties, which is engaged in a campaign to promote more attainable housing, “Workforce Housing Now.” Director of Community Engagement Allison Metzger said restrictive zoning pushes up the cost of housing.
“We support reduced regulatory and procedural barriers that drive up the cost and time of development,” she said.
Meanwhile, others called for protecting what is already in Loudoun, such as its green space and historic structures. Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director Michael Myers urged the commission to adopt stronger requirements to use native species in plantings, connected green spaces and regulations on light pollution. Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains President Peter Weeks urged the commission to preserve the mountains as a source of clean drinking water, clean air, and beautiful views that attract people to Loudoun.
Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area Association Executive Director Alexander Nance urged specific protections and definitions for historic resources and predicted more debates to come on preservation.
“We see the recent discord over the expansion of Rt. 15 as a sign of conflicts to come in this county,” he said.
And Gladys Lewis, speaking for the Leesburg Garden Club, Loudoun and Fauquier Garden Club and the Purcellville, Upperville and Middleburg garden clubs, hearkened back to a historic member of the Leesburg club and founding member of the Loudoun Planning Commission, Vinton Pickens. Pickens led the push for the county’s first Zoning Ordinance, and to forbid billboards in Loudoun. Lewis, also a former planning commissioner, said those long-standing sign regulations are eroded in the new ordinance.
“The people of Loudoun have been able to find these business with current sizes. Keep sign sizes reasonable,” she said. “… Referrals, time and internet searches will allow customers to find businesses, not new signs.”
“I want to really emphasize that the users of the Zoning Ordinance are all the citizens of the county. It is not just the developers,” said Save Rural Loudoun board member John Ellis, echoing Maura Walsh Copeland. “…In fact, the ordinance exists because of the interests of citizens in development.”
But speakers from a range of interests agreed: it is difficult to evaluate the ordinance as a whole while looking at it in pieces.
“It’s also hard to analyze the draft Zoning Ordinance when certain sections are released at separate times, when the Zoning Ordinance is a document that really needs to be evaluated as a comprehensive document,” said Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh land use attorney Sasha Brauer, pointing out often parts of the ordinance refer to other sections.
And some pushed the Planning Commission to slow down the work on the ordinance. Zoning Ordinance Committee members, who advised county staff members on early drafts of the ordinance, said they would like another chance at reviewing the package. Brauer’s colleague at Walsh Colucci, land use planner Michael Romeo, said even Planning Commission work sessions are premature at this point.
Many commissioners agreed.
“We have a duty to sometimes respond to the timeline that the Board of Supervisors has set on certain issues. This is not one of them,” said Commissioner Mark Miller (Catoctin). “I would hope that we take as much time as we need to do this correctly. A short shrift by us will only lead to a short shrift by the board.”
Commission Chairman Forest Hayes (At Large) referred back to the previous Planning Commission’s work on the 2019 Comprehensive Plan.
“They will always be known, for good, for bad, as the Planning Commission that did the comprehensive plan,” he said. “We will be known as the Planning Commission that ultimately did a great zoning rewrite.”
The Planning Commission hearing is the latest step in an extensive process that has included 26 interest groups, online public comment periods, in-person public meetings, and 40 meetings of the county’s Zoning Ordinance Committee and its subcommittees as county staff members have written drafts of the new ordinance. Next, the Planning Commission will take the ordinance to work session for more review and edits.
When the Planning Commission finishes its work on the Zoning Ordinance, it will forward that on to the Board of Supervisors for another public hearing and more work.
Draft zoning ordinance chapters are available for review at loudoun.gov/5274/Zoning-Ordinance-Rewrite.