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Loudoun stakeholders and citizens show signs of discontent with Comprehensive Plan process

Nearly 2,000 residents participated in workshops to envision the county’s future.Envision-Loudoun.org
For the past year, Loudoun County has embarked on a million-dollar effort to reconstruct its key policy document -- the Comprehensive Plan, a roadmap used in guiding the county through critical land-use and development decisions.

The current plan was adopted nearly two decades ago in 2001, which bore the framework for the rural, suburban and transition policy areas and protections Loudoun knows today.

When consequential land use applications come before the Board of Supervisors and planning staff, the current Comprehensive Plan is used as a reference document to base their opposing or favorable views or votes.

About a year or less remains until the Board of Supervisors must adopt the new plan, which a 26-member, board-appointed stakeholders committee comprising developers, special interest groups, preservation coalitions and citizens, has been helping county staff and a team of consultants craft.

If you ask county staff and members of the Board of Supervisors, you will hear that the Comprehensive Plan process is playing out its course and that they and the stakeholders still have plenty of time left to figure everything out.

But if you talk to stakeholders, citizens and community coalitions groups, a different story emerges, one that raises concern about the significant presence of developers on the stakeholders team, some of them frequent presenters of land use applications to the Board of Supervisors, as well as the fact that emerging land use policy discussions are taking place at the county-level regarding housing needs, town centers and more, even though the comprehensive plan process has not yet finished.

They also worry that the drafts and discussions on the plan that have emerged from the process lack the depth and analysis needed to carry the county through land-use decisions.

The process so far has produced a draft set of goals and objectives for the plan, wrapped up about a two-months-long “Envision Loudoun” public outreach session and attracted thousands from around the county who have submitted nearly 5,000 comments expressing their views on the future of Loudoun. Staff, too, plans to have a draft of the new plan by May 15.

The plan includes goals like: Shape: Make a great place; Compete: Be an economic force; Connect: Bring people and places together; Sustain: Strengthen natural and historic assets; and Support: Enhance quality of life.

But, some think the language is too broad.

“The language so far in our goals and objectives are pretty generic,” Piedmont Environmental Council representative on the stakeholders committee Gem Bingol said. “And they're wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Nobody anywhere would object to these, but they could apply anywhere almost. There's no specific Loudoun focus right now.”

After staff and consultants provided a locked PDF version of the nearly 5,000 public input comments, some on the stakeholders committee branched off to analyze and compile the comments on their own, and plan to share the database of comments with citizens and staff, in a format they will be able to manipulate and categorize.

Comp plan, then and now

Al Van Huyck, 84, a Comprehensive Plan stakeholder who represents the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, is one of those people helping compile the comments.

Nearly two decades ago, the career urban planner and consultant, who once built affordable housing in the developing world, chaired the Loudoun Planning Commission and served as one of the main architects of the current Comprehensive Plan.

Van Huyck has been a critic of the “top down” approach he thinks staff are taking with the plan and the lack of analytical work and big questions he thinks the stakeholders team should be addressing at this stage in the process.

Last summer, a citizens committee on which Van Huyck also served, used the Comprehensive Plan to make a case for why a 3.5-acre, 35-foot-tall facility telecom giant AT&T sought a county commission permit for in an area of the county protected from the construction of those type of facilities, did not belong on the top of western Loudoun’s Short Hill Mountain.

The Comprehensive Plan was ultimately the document several supervisors also referenced when they cast their opposing votes on the project and overturned AT&T's commission permit.

“It was the General Plan that gave the power to the people to be able to say that commission permit should be denied,” Van Huyck said. “And if we have a General Plan that says mountains are beautiful and we love the mountains in Loudoun County, we don't have a policy that says you can't do it.”

Van Huyck is worried about what the plan will ultimately look like.

“What kind of plan are we going to make in the end? Because we spend all this time on goals and themes, but we haven't seen what the plan is going to be. Is it intended to be kind of a happy read for future investors?” Van Huyck added. “Or is it going to be a plan that actually sets out a framework and allows the citizens and the staff to evaluate whether proposals are in compliance with the wishes of the people of Loudoun County?”

Right now, he says, there are “only hints” of the direction the plan is going in.

“The hints are not in my opinion good,” he said.

Deep Dive

Department of Planning and Zoning Director Ricky Barker and current Planning Commission Chair Jeff Salmon, who are both helping oversee the Comprehensive Plan process, have defended the process and said the stakeholders group will begin a “deep dive” discussion on policy and analytical questions.

Barker says staff and the consultants are trying to the make the new plan more “user-friendly.”

With nearly 1,000 policies in the current plan, Barker thinks some of those policies could be outlined in the county’s future official zoning ordinances instead, so that future land use applications will have to abide by zoning ordinances instead of relying solely on the Comprehensive Plan for guidance.

Meanwhile, Salmon stressed the vision statement, goals and objectives stakeholders have decided on are only “high-level” overarching ideas about the plan and that the details will go in the actual plan as they move forward.

“We're still compiling the information to write that book, I don't know how many chapters are going to come out of the book, it might be 1,000, it might be four, nobody really knows yet,” Salmon said. “I think it's probably a little bit premature to figure out how we're going to write the book at this point.”

Stakeholders have completed Phase II of the comprehensive planning process and are moving into Phase III, which will involve another round of public input sessions, the Planning Commission’s recommendation of the plan as well as the board’s consideration of the new plan

Transition area, development interests

Stakeholders will now begin discussions on the county’s transition policy area -- a part of the county which serves as a buffer between the county’s rural west and suburban east.

It is an area many have urged the board and stakeholders to protect from more residential development. But with the recent housing needs assessment in mind, which found a future housing gap of 18,000 homes in 2040, and interests of the development community on the team, some fear the transition area could open up the new plan to increased development.

Some even on the stakeholders team worry the group will recommend higher densities in the transition zone.

“Of course in the end it's going to be the Board of Supervisors who make the final decisions about this,” Catoctin District board-appointed citizen representative and long-time northern Virginia architect Kevin Ruedisueli, said. “But if I had to take a sense of where the stakeholders are going, I think...there are enough people who are recognizing that the transition area needs to be addressed at some level and increased densities there, I think, are going to be recommended.”

Louis Canonico, a Board of Supervisors-appointed stakeholder representing the Broad Run District as a citizen representative, is also the vice president of the land planning firm Christopher Consultants' special services division – a company that has worked on the Waterside mixed-use development and others.

Despite criticism of his profession, as a 40-year resident of Loudoun County, Canonico thinks his extensive knowledge of both land use and the county itself is beneficial to the Comprehensive Plan process.

“I take offense that people think because I work in the industry that I work in I can’t provide a fair and unbiased position on things like the General Plan or the zoning ordinance or things like that,” Canonico said. “Quite frankly, I think the fact that some people have a knowledge background and understanding of the county’s land-use documents and requirements are an assistance.”

Canonico is also a member of the Zoning Ordinance Action Group, a Board of Supervisors-appointed commission tasked with helping craft zoning and planning decisions -- a group nearly entirely represented by those in the development community.

Canonico also pointed out it is the Board of Supervisors who nominate the stakeholders as well as members of ZOAG.

Last Resort

After several people voiced concern about the Comprehensive Plan process and the presence of developers on the stakeholders group at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, some told them to turn down the criticism of the process.

“The group of un-elected officials known as the stakeholders committee, along with the group of highly paid consultants want to turn specific comments into a few vanilla themes that appear to guide only new growth,” Donald Goff member of the Transition Area Alliance group, told the board. “I’m also very troubled by the composition of the stakeholders with more than 50 percent developers, builders and real estate developers.”

Goff called on supervisors to take what the stakeholders committee presents them “with a grain of salt” and listen to their residents.

Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) shot back, stressing the board was nowhere near taking a position on the plan and would ultimately have the final approval.

“I want the temperature to go down a little bit ... I appreciate it but ... sometimes these things can start snowballing and incorrect information snowballs out of control and it doesn’t need to because the concerns I’m hearing, are not what I hear from my representative on the stakeholders group, and I listen to him all the time,” the chairwoman said.

Randall also said she was aware of the concerns around growth and development in the county and pointed out, less than half of the members on the stakeholders team were developers.

Representatives on the stakeholders group are slated to present the draft mission statement, vision and goals to the Board of Supervisors for endorsement at the board’s May 2 business meeting.

Comments


The Comp Plan is a guide for all activities of the County. Yes, the BOS can deviate from anything it says in their decision making. Doing so, of course, would constitute a breach of the compact that supposedly goes into the creation of the Comp Plan in the first place (that’s why all this public outreach is occurring, so that the Comp Plan is a synthesis of the public’s voice).

Gerrymandering will occur, political ideology and influence peddlers will help shape it, and it will not be everything to everyone. But it will be the guiding document for the next XX years, until it’s revised and reinvented again.


The BOS seems to have no problem deviating from the Comp Plan to serve a special interest they deem worthy.  The Comp Plan is used to prevent individuals from doing certain things.  How come the rules are not the same for everyone?


Unlike developers, my bias brings me NO financial gain. Just seeking enforcement of policies and laws that protect citizens’ investment and our beloved ridgetop ecosystems. Ridgetops that everyone in Catoctin Valley, citizen and businesses alike cherish and benefit from. AT&Ts; placement of hazardous chemicals directly on top of the aquifer recharge zone is asinine. Homeowners below I know have been impacted by AT&T’s ineffective sewage “treatment” system inspected by their own paid contractor not County Health Dept staff.  The scar along the ridge has enlarged. indiscriminate long term damage continues. Power ego County reps like Barker Salmon Higgins Buffington et al don’t care about Loudoun or her citizens.


The article states: “Barker thinks some of those policies could be outlined in the county’s future official zoning ordinances instead, so that future land use applications will have to abide by zoning ordinances instead of relying solely on the Comprehensive Plan for guidance.” And who is in charge of revising the zoning ordinances? The Zoning Ordinance Action Group. Its majority is employees or owners of development interests, all of whom were appointed by Supervisor Suzanne Volpe, who has received hundreds of thousands in campaign donations from the development industry—with one handsome amount just before she nominated all of those development folk to reappointments on the ZOAG. A perfect circle. Also of note: Barker, prior to his move to Loudoun, presided over the tripling of the population of Cary, North Carolina, in the worst sort of sprawl development, complete with discontiguous parcels on the edge of the incorporated town—which is a red flag of poor planning. At the beginning of this process, before stakeholder committee nominations were made, Barker told citizens he already had spoken to the stakeholders—the development community.


To be fair, if certain people don’t want those in “the development community” to be part of the Comp Plan creation process, then those in “the anti-development community”, like Ms. Bingol, should be removed as well. And citizens with clear biases against development, like Skyprince and Birddog, should also be ineligible.

You find some un-biased, un-interested, and un-affected citizens who can give input, I’m sure the BOS will be happy to include them on the committee.


I can’t believe my tax dollars are paying for: “Shape: Make a great place; Compete: Be an economic force; Connect: Bring people and places together; Sustain: Strengthen natural and historic assets; and Support: Enhance quality of life.” Seriously?  Canonico get over yourself if you don’t see why citizens perceive you and similar stakeholders have a CLEAR conflict of interest. Barker and Salmon have no credibility - they were falling over themselves to help AT&T destroy Short Hill which continues unabated, they do NOT care what citizens think. The timing of Barker’s entry into the Loudoun scene is suspicious IMO.  These development-pushing, AT&T-pandering, citizen-dismissing BOS members need to go.


No one from the development community should be sitting in on the plan that affects Loudoun citizens. Most are from out of state, like Toll Brothers is from Pennsylvania etc. These jackals only want to fatten their bottom line at our expense….again. The Comp Plan should only be decided by Loudoun citizens and no special interest groups. Look at what they have done with Route 15 with all that silly development there…it only made the already overburdened road more dangerous and loaded with traffic. Change the plan if you must, but jettison anyone from the development community, they don’t have Loudoun’s interest at heart.


Recent surveys have shown that Loudoun citizens’ top 2 concerns are 1) Too much development and 2) Transportation.

I would hope that the stakeholder group would issues metrics for the county to achieve on both points.  The fuzzy stuff is nice, be we need to set goals for future Boards to actually accomplish and something we citizens can hold them accountable for.

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