In these sad and anxious times, it is difficult to focus on the future. Despite the challenges, however, our county government continues to move forward as best as it can on important long-term issues, including the fate of Loudoun’s rapidly diminishing rural areas.

The Comprehensive Plan that was adopted just last year states that the county’s policy is to “limit residential development to protect the land resource for agricultural operations, rural economy uses, and open space uses; minimize traffic impacts; and reduce the demand for additional public facilities and services.” This policy reflects the desires and expectations of the majority of our citizens in both the eastern and western parts of the county.

In reality, most of us are painfully aware that rural residential development is not sufficiently limited. Dozens of square miles of the best farmland in the eastern United States are being destroyed, spectacular views from our scenic byways are being marred, and traffic congestion in our historical villages and on our cross-county arteries has become nearly intolerable.

Why is there such a great discrepancy between the county’s rural policies and these unfortunate realities?

Cynics may blame “greedy developers” who are imagined to be manipulating the county government behind the scenes to subvert the public will. Longtime rural residents sometimes complain about the influx of “city folk” moving into fancy, new rural suburbs and obstructing farming and other traditional rural activities.

But the blame game is a cop-out. The real reason we are losing Loudoun’s rural areas is that the county’s Zoning Ordinance currently makes it perfectly legal and, in fact, creates powerful financial incentives for developers to convert farms into subdivisions. There is a vast disconnect between the effect of these zoning regulations and the intent of the county’s rural policies.

We the people are ultimately responsible for fixing this problem. The purpose of zoning regulations is to balance individual landowners’ rights with the public’s interest in creating a living environment that we can all enjoy. To achieve the right balance, members of the public have to participate in the county’s decision-making processes.

Many of us shy away from zoning debates because the regulations are complex and seemingly indecipherable for the average citizen. To simply stand aside, however, is to abdicate our responsibility to hold local government accountable for its practices as well as its policies. It abandons the field to developers who have diligently studied the zoning regulations and done their utmost to influence every comma and period to meet their own needs.

The critical questions for rural Loudoun are, in fact, clear and straightforward. They center around the Zoning Ordinance’s rules for “cluster subdivisions,” which allow developers to build large residential subdivisions on former farms and other rural land.

The current cluster subdivision zoning rules allow them to build one new residence for every five acres of land in the north of the county. On a 100-acre property, this adds up to 20 houses, 18 of which can be “clustered” into a compact development that may look no different than a typical neighborhood in Fairfax. Those 18 houses and their septic fields can be constructed on prime farmland, where it is always cheaper for the developer to build.

The appropriate size for our rural cluster subdivisions, however, is not written in stone. Under Virginia law, it is up to county governments to determine what rules should apply. Neighboring Prince William County allows only half as many clustered houses in their own rural areas as we allow in the northern parts of rural Loudoun. To our west, Clarke County allows even fewer.

To limit rural residential growth more effectively, the county needs to revise the zoning rules to reduce the number of houses that can be built in a rural cluster subdivision, as Prince William and Clarke have already done. Just as important is a requirement that developers not destroy prime farmland.

The county is in the process of re-writing the Zoning Ordinance, with the express purpose of ensuring that it conforms with the Comprehensive Plan. This offers an ideal opportunity to fix the discrepancy between our strong rural preservation policies and our weak rural zoning regulations.

Recently, developers and others who benefit from Loudoun’s current cluster zoning rules have been hard at work lobbying county supervisors to maintain the status quo, which would benefit their own interests while paving the way for continued degradation of our rural areas.

Everyone is of course free to defend their individual interests. However, the rest of us need to step back and consider the cumulative impact this would have on our livelihoods, our quality of life, and the legacy we are leaving for our children and future generations. To sustain our farms and tourism businesses, preserve rural scenery, keep our history alive, and avoid worsening traffic nightmares and higher taxes, we need to reduce the size of rural cluster subdivisions.

Now is the time to let our supervisors know what we think. They will listen if we choose to speak. Please call or write to specifically ask them to reduce the size of rural cluster subdivisions and to establish effective regulations to preserve our remaining prime farmland.


John Ellis is a board member of Save Rural Loudoun (

(8) comments


If people want to change the permitted density in western Loudoun, then so be it. I'm not a developer and don't have enough land so subdivide in any case, so I don't care. But to paint "cluster" subdivisions as bad is wrongheaded and ignores the history of how we got here. Until about 2005, all of western Loudoun was zoned A3, which allowed 3 acre lots. At the time it was called grid A3, because large developments were built on hundreds and thousands of acres where every lot was exactly 3 acres or as close to it as the could find a way to make it. Wright Farm north of Purcellville is a good example. The problem with this is the amount of infrastructure required- mainly roads. All these houses would be far apart on 3 acre lots and VDOT had to maintain all the miles of roads, the fire department had to drive through all of them and the school buses end up having to drive miles just to pick up a couple kids. So when things were revised, the compromise solution ended up being to decrease the permitted density from 1 house per 3 acres to 1 house per 5, 10 or 20 acres, depending on the subdivision option someone choose to use. To get the highest density- which was still much lower that what had been permitted for decades- you had to do a cluster subdivision, which had the most rules and regulations. The idea being to make most of the lots small and "cluster" them in one or two areas in order to preserve the majority of the track as one or two very large lots that could still be used for agricultural purposes. At the same time, the remainder of the lots require much less infrastructure and stormwater management and have less overall impact on the environment. So cluster subdivision is good and what we want. If people want less houses, they need to deal with the real problem and get the permitted density decreased, not get rid of cluster subdivision. Going back to something like grid A3 is the worst thing we could do- though the majority of the development that's ever going to happen in western loudoun is either already done or has enough approvals that theres no legal way to stop it. I still see developments that I know for a fact are being built under approvals they got prior to the 2005 changes. State law and legal precedent doesn't permit changing the rules once you get to a certain point. So anyone telling you "cluster subdivision" is the problem has some kind of an agenda. If you want less house, you need to change the density and keep cluster zoning. If cluster subdivision had been in place 40 years ago, even with the exact same number of houses, western Loudoun would look vastly different and there would be far far more open space and agricultural land.


What's that expression,"the elephant in the room"?That would be Loudoun's proximity to the D.C. metro area.All the newbie horses and all the newbie men can't put Loudoun together again.I saw the same thing happen to Fairfax when I lived in Vienna as a small child.All our neighbors had acreage and all of it is long gone.Someday I'll sell my own working cattle farm near Hillsboro.I plan to move south,where the economy is truly based on agriculture rather than hi-tech and supporting Federal workers.


That's what happens as suburban areas appear. I grew up in Vienna too, those people made a bundle on those properties. The agricultural community is not doing well, you may want to wait.

When you write these articles, it would be helpful to provide the contact info for the decision-makers so concerned supporters of your group can write and call them. Active citizens have a lot of causes to keep track of, and the number of bureaucrats whom we must gig is overwhelming. The info is not in your website, either. Please revise your very welcome PR efforts in this manner to increase effectiveness.


This is a big concern for me. I moved out here from Fairfax, despite the horrific Rt 15, because of the open spaces. Farmers have every right to sell their properties however, the board should see that the aesthetic value these open lands is what drives touristic revenue more effectively than residential, which tends to be self-deteriorating. I would love to see some of the farmlands become public spaces for hiking, hunting, fishing, and public river access.

Chris McHale

You lost me after "our county government continues to move forward".


he lost me after "I moved out here from Fairfax"


How long have you had this comprehension problem?

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