And the growth persists.
The once pastoral Loudoun County is now home to more than 400,000 residents, the latest Census figures tell us – a fact that's hard to grasp for seasoned locals and those taken with the west's bucolic charm.
“I'm saddened by what my beautiful county has become,” Ryleigh Wade commented on the Times-Mirror's Facebook page. “They just keep pushing west. It's terrible. Still gives me solace driving down my back country roads. Frightened by what will become of them.”
“Yippee! 400,000 residents!” Nicole Mesko Reid added. “Now, close the gates quickly, so the schools and roads can catch up.”
Maggie Patten-Keller noted, “We’ve been in Ashburn for 26 years — back when there were more farms and cows than people, it was rural and didn’t even get weather reports on the TV. I used to love it here but what made it desirable is slipping away. It used to be so quaint and no McMansions now I can’t wait to move someday.”
Yet while news of the population milestone has ruffled many, the Board of Supervisors offered signs of hope. On Dec. 4, the board signed off on what amounts to a year-long pilot conservation easement program, approving a cost-sharing initiative that will see up to $150,000 in public funds go toward covering either 50 percent of eligible “soft costs” to place land in conservation easement, or $15,000 per landowner, whichever is less. The first year will allow up to 10 local projects.
Libertarian and limited government purists may scold supervisors for offering public money to some wealthy landowners interested in placing their pristine acreage in easement, but as far as we're concerned, if the county continues to offer hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in economic incentives for million- and billion-dollar companies, the government can spare a comparable penny or two to save Loudoun from becoming Anywhere, U.S.A.
As we've stressed before, the benefits of preservation aren't strictly scenic. The conservation effort makes fiscal sense for the county as a whole. Loudoun’s 1,400 farm businesses account for 51 percent of northern Virginia’s agri-tourism venues, and they sell $37 million dollars in annual product, according to county-provided data. Loudoun's equine industry alone generates an estimated economic impact of more than $190 million annually, and overall tourism activity exceeds $1.5 billion.
Moreover, open space over residential development means less demand for expensive schools, transportation infrastructure and public safety needs.
Beyond the conservation easement pilot, the county is also studying a Transfer of Development Rights program, wherein the county would designate “sending and receiving areas” for development density, allowing credits to be sold from rural parcels to urban areas, where more concentrated density won't pulverize Loudoun's longstanding way of life.
These measures come as the Planning Commission and supervisors continue to chip away at the new comprehensive plan, a blueprint for Loudoun's growth and land use for decades to come. Should the commission continue to neglect the overwhelming desire of county residents to preserve rural Loudoun – and should supervisors not adjust the final plan to meet the will of the people – these conservation programs will at least protect pockets of the place so many people cherish.