The Loudoun County Planning Commission held a lengthy public hearing Tuesday on the newly released draft of the more than 350 pages of a new county zoning ordinance, finally putting in front of the public a draft of the full document.
The zoning ordinance is the enforceable regulatory document that implements the policies and vision of the 2019 Comprehensive Plan. And since the Board of Supervisors adopted that new plan, the zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan in many places have been out of sync, while the land development and permit applications have continued to roll in. The county has been working since early 2020 to rewrite the entire ordinance.
Some of the ordinance went before a public hearing on August 2022, but the full document wasn’t yet ready. The balance of that document was released to the public on Jan. 5 and brought a crowd to the Jan. 25 hearing.
People from different sectors pushed to do more to encourage affordable housing.
“When teachers in our community cannot afford to live in the community that they’re teaching in, we’ve failed somewhere,” organizer and Leesburg resident Vanessa Borg said.
“The greatest threat to Loudoun’s prosperity and quality of life is the availability of a skilled workforce,” Loudoun Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tony Howard said, arguing the answer is to allow much more residential construction.
And longtime affordable housing developer Kim Hart—for many years the only affordable housing developer in Loudoun—said he has not had responses from county staff members to his nine submitted concerns.
“In my professional opinion, this current draft … will be so difficult to implement that it will make it impossible for Loudoun to ever meet the goals of the Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan,” he said.
Others pushed to do more to protect Loudoun’s environment and natural spaces. Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director Michael Myers advocated more specificity in regulations to protect natural resources. He said they “must be clear and specific to be effective.”
“Most of us acknowledge that we are approaching potentially catastrophic climate change. The mountains are our ally,” Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains President Peter Weeks said, urging changes to mountainside protections.
And farmers pushed to protect Loudoun’s agricultural legacy–and future.
“I’ve heard the word ‘diversity’ spoken about a lot tonight, and I would not blame anyone who is not involved in agriculture for assuming that when we talk about farming, we’re talking about old white guys sitting on tractors,” Pam Jones of Gathering Springs Farm said. “But in Loudoun County, we have this incredibly diverse, entrepreneurial, inspiring group of young farmers that are doing what they need to do to farm in this economic climate, in this area, where land prices are prohibitively high.”
The CEO and some tenants of business incubator Frontier Kitchen in Chantilly worried the zoning ordinance language threatens fledgling small businesses like theirs. Pho From Home founder Khai Nguyen said he spent 25 years in corporate America, on Wall Street, and in Fortune 20 companies, “but I’ve got to tell you, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m not asking for any special help. But I am asking for you not to put your finger on the scale that’s going to disadvantage me,” he said. He worried the ordinance would prevent farmers markets, the source of much of his revenue—county Project Manager Judi Birkitt said it does not, but could be clarified.
Foggy Mountain Pasta founder Gabriel Key said reading the ordinance “put a chill down my spine, down my spouse’s spine, and it has made us feel unwelcome in Loudoun.”
Key said he has already faced zoning problems moving his business into a new space, and, wearing one of Loudoun Economic Development’s branded “Loudoun Possible” shirts, said “what I just read has made me think Loudoun has now gone from ‘Loudoun possible’ to ‘Loudoun impossible.’”
One of the farmers who provides Key’s grain, Hanging Rock Hay and Grain owner Chris Van Vlack, said arbitrary rules in the ordinance discourage small farmers like him making do by working several smaller parcels.
“Every day I drive past a piece of land that last year was a cow pasture, and this year is being transformed into a multimillion-dollar houses,” another farmer said. “The soil on that land will never be the same. Soil creation is a geological process that takes millions of years, and watching that resource be destroyed all over this county is heartbreaking.”
Building and real estate industry representatives urged “flexibility” in the zoning ordinance.
“The current version of the zoning ordinances will make it difficult for businesses to continue to operate,” John Mossgrove, of commercial property real estate development company Merritt Properties, said.
Contrary to Hart’s concerns, NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association Northern Virginia representative Bill Junda said staff members “have been just phenomenal working with us.”
“It’s obvious to us all, with this new release of chapters, there’s a different tone, there’s a different context, it’s moving in the right direction. However, in the last two weeks we have compiled nearly 200 comments,” he said.
But many agreed the ordinance will need more time than the Board of Supervisors hopes.
“I’m told that that the rush to implement the rewrite is purely political. It’s being driven by the desire to conclude this process before the members of the Board of Supervisors are in the throes of the 2023 election season,” B.F. Saul Company Senior Vice President Mary Beth Avedesian said. She said rushing the process would have “unintended consequences”—in her case, arguing for a chapter-by-chapter review with commercial property owners.
The Board of Supervisors had asked the Planning Commission to have the new zoning ordinance ready early this year.
“We have people in the farm side of things and land preservation that are saying we’re trying to screw them, at the same time we have folks in the development community saying we’re trying to screw them,” Commissioner Mark Miller (Catoctin) said. “Why did we get to the point where everyone’s upset with us?”
And he said the comments Tuesday night suggest there is a lot of work left to do.
“I really don't think there's any way we accomplish this by March. There’s just no way to do that. So if it takes us longer, it takes us longer, because I think it's our responsibility to get it right here before we go give it to the board, whenever that is, for whatever board that may be,” he said.
“I’m hopeful that some of the expertise in this room will be available to us as we go forward in the conversations and the work sessions that I think we’re going to have to have,” Commissioner Roger Vance (Blue Ridge) said.
Madhava Madireddy (Dulles) noted it was his first public hearing since joining the Planning Commission.
“I ask commissioners and the staff not to rush into this thing—just to make it right,” he said. “Even if it takes longer, we have to make it right. Because there’s a place for everything.”
Vice Chair Eric Combs (Ashburn) said the 56 comments that night were evidence that the process is working.
And Planning Commission Chair Michelle Frank (Broad Run) thanked the many people who spoke at the hearing.
“Your feedback … that tells us something, and helps us figure out where we may need to be looking that we weren't already looking. So you're very important part of this process,” she said.
Four other zoning ordinance changes happened outside the zoning ordinance rewrite. The Board of Supervisors has already passed Airport Impact Overlay District changes around Dulles Airport as well as permitting a utility-scale solar array on airport property, and work continues on revisions to zoning around prime agricultural soils, cluster subdivisions and short-term residential rentals.
To see the draft zoning ordinance, go to loudoun.gov/zoningordinancerewrite.