Hillsborough Winery

Hillsborough Vineyards, just north of the town of Hillsboro.

Loudoun County’s strategy for preserving its rural areas is based on a false premise. The 2019 Comprehensive Plan asserts that, if we cluster rural housing in low-density residential subdivisions — “clustered subdivisions” — then the land surrounding those subdivisions will be preserved for farming and other rural businesses.

In reality, this strategy is producing the opposite of its intent. A recent study by the American Farmlands Trust found that Virginia farmland adjacent to “low-density residential” development — in other words, a clustered subdivision — is seven times more likely to be urbanized than farmland surrounded by other farmland. Clustered subdivisions fundamentally change the character of rural land in ways that eventually destroy the rural economy.

For one thing, they fragment the land in a way that makes it more difficult and expensive for farmers to monitor and manage their fields. Heavy farm equipment must be moved around on congested public roads, raising both cost and safety issues. In addition, farmers come under increasing pressure from non-farming neighbors who object to the unavoidable sounds and smells of an active farming operation. As the number and size of farms decreases, the cost of providing fertilizers, chemicals, machine maintenance and other farm services rises. Some service providers have already moved out of Loudoun, making it even more difficult for local farmers to procure the services at affordable prices.

Our current zoning regulations promote this kind of rural fragmentation. In comparison with neighboring counties, Loudoun stands out as a champion for building clustered subdivisions, particularly in the northern part of our rural areas. Fifteen years ago, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors decided to allow developers to put three times more houses in those subdivisions than is allowed in neighboring Clarke and Fauquier counties. This created a powerful financial incentive for developers to look our way when searching for farmland to build on.

The results have been predictable. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Loudoun lost a total of 67 square miles of farmland between 2002 and 2017, an average of about four square miles per year. That total was twice as much farmland as Fauquier lost during the same period, even though Loudoun had much less farmland to begin with. As a proportion of the total, Loudoun lost 26 percent of the farmland it had in 2002, while Fauquier lost “only” 9 percent.

Unfortunately, powerful local interests do not consider this to be a problem and are actively advocating with the county government to maintain Loudoun’s developer-friendly rural zoning rules as they are. In their view, the county’s priority should be to prop up the value of large rural properties by maximizing their potential for residential development. We can expect them to argue that a long-gone Board of Supervisors’ decision to allow developers to build three times more houses in rural Loudoun than is allowed in rural Fauquier is a sacred privilege and entitlement.

These interests apparently do not worry that, if unchanged, the current zoning policies will result in further destruction of irreplaceable prime farmland, tourism attractions, water resources, natural habitats and historic legacy. Nor are they concerned by the impacts on smaller property owners’ real estate assessments or the affordability of rural housing for working class families. They do not mind the increased traffic congestion or the additional tax burdens these policies will impose on citizens in the eastern part of the county, who must pay the bulk of the cost of expanding roads, schools and other public services in the west.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate for different individuals to advocate for county policies that benefit their own interests. Don’t we all? However, our elected officials must balance the interests of our large landowners against the interests of local farms, wineries and other rural businesses that may be severely injured by the continued fragmentation and destruction of Loudoun’s farmland and rural scenery. They must also consider the potential impacts on all Loudoun citizens’ pocketbooks and quality of life, not just a relative few.

To do so, the county will need to reconcile its rural policies with established realities, including by ditching the false premise that clustered subdivisions help to preserve rural areas. At the very least, we need to align our zoning rules with our neighboring counties and remove the incentive for developers to target rural Loudoun for low density residential development.

There is at least one bright spot on the horizon. Our new supervisors are clearly more aware of the threat to rural Loudoun and more willing than their predecessors to try to address it. Their recent approval of an initiative to preserve prime soils and address other problems associated with clustered subdivisions is a promising start. The big question will be whether they can resist the rising pressures from pro-development interests and follow through with decisive actions. Your voice matters: please let them know what you think.

Loudoun’s fertile farms and vibrant tourism businesses help to make this county a unique and special place to live. If we preserve the land, they will continue to thrive.


John Ellis of Hillsboro is the chairman of the advocacy organization Save Rural Loudoun.

(18) comments


Respectfully written. Readers of this article need to be informed that the author of this article only moved to western Loudoun on a 2.9 acre lot about 5 years ago. I do not have a problem with this because I welcome all newcomers. However he is not a farmer, he does not own any land whose value will be reduced by the Save Prime Farmland initiative and he, like most people who moved to western Loudoun, simply want to close the gate behind them and not allow more families to move here and enjoy the natural beauty that he does. The author has fallen victim to the to the anti-growth activists who have been in Loudoun for decades and surface every time a new general plan or zoning ordinance rewrite occurs. I am sure the author is a good man but he does not know anything about farming and the hardships that farmers face day in and day out with farming issues alone. Farmers have to battle property rights grabbing, anti-growth activists every decade or so to protect their property values. These people are not interested in protecting prime farm soils, they are just using this perfect sequence of words to promote their real agenda which is to protect the viewshed for their viewing pleasure and the tourists viewing pleasure that frequent wineries, breweries and bed & breakfast businesses. They are great linguists and have cleverly come up with the catchy phrase “Save Prime Farmland” to promote their anti-growth campaign. These anti-growth activists are using the rural economy businesses (wineries, breweries and B&B’s) to promote their anti-growth agenda and steal more land value from the farmers. Farmers would like to see the viewsheds protected also but they are getting tired of it always being at their expense.

The farmers had their density reduced in 2005 by 40%. The author will never mention this density reduction in his vast array of propaganda publications. He misleads his readers and makes them think the county unwittingly gave landowners 3 times as much density as the base zoning density allows. He does not ever point out that the one house per five acre density (if you cluster the houses) is a reduction from the one house per three acres the farmers used to have.

He also carefully blames the developer for the cluster incentive and claims it is all for their glory and profit. The author knows, but won’t admit it to his readers, that the farmer’s land under its current allowed zoning, is the farmer’s profits, their 401K plan and their pension plan. Most farmers in Loudoun are cash poor and their land is the only asset they have to show for generations of work. These activists need to quit using big government, through burdensome regulations, to steal the farmer’s equity and property rights.

The author of this article, through his Save Rural Loudoun heading, has in the past severely criticized a subdivision called Miller’s Ridge, however, he has not offered the county or the citizens a concept plan for Millers Ridge that would have been better and met all of his new regulation objectives. I challenge the author to do this and put it out there for all citizens to analyze. If it is proven that his concept plan works better, does everything he is promoting, and at the same time does not reduce the landowner’s property values, then it should get favorable consideration. If it doesn’t work or it does reduce the landowner’s property value, then this whole initiative should be dropped. The tax payer dollars saved from pushing this item through the county approval process should be given to our local non-profit organizations instead.

The data the USDA suggests that is lost to farmland is misleading. If a 100 acre farm was subdivided into 5 twenty acre lots, the USDA records will show that 100 acres and one farm is lost, when in fact, we now have 5 farms of 20 acres each. Also, for each lot that is built on, regardless of the size, only an estimated 1 acre of farmland is lost due to the driveway, yard and house site. The remaining land associated with that lot is still prime farmland, it is just being repurposed for smaller farms. Farming is changing in Loudoun County and small farms are our future. The “S” in Save Prime Farmland needs to be changed to “Share” Prime Farmland. Every family in the east should be able to enjoy western Loudoun the same way that the author does on his less than 3 acre lot.


LoudounRoots your post should be submitted as a rebuttal to the article.I'd like to see your factual comments in the "Editorial" section.

Loudoun Farmer

The concerns over what make a "real farm" based on acreage isn't really a helpful discussion. There are folks making a full time operation out of under 10 acres of vegetable production, and there are folks who own hundreds of acres that do little more than pay someone to bush hog it. Likewise there are folks that own little or no acreage but have custom farming operations based on rented land. The real issue is that regardless of what the land is being used for now, once it goes under a clustered residential housing development, it will never be used for agriculture again. Those of us involved in farming in the county know we're in a unique situation here, with incredibly high land prices, but also access to direct markets that far exceed almost any other area in the country. Most importantly, western Loudoun is home to some of the best agricultural soils in the Commonwealth making it even more critical that we preserve these prime agricultural soils for their productivity growing crops and raising livestock, and not being placed under large single family homes. As the supply chain problems during the Covid19 pandemic has show us, our current food system is not a given, and when we have soils capable high levels of production right here in our backyard, we need to protect them as the valuable natural resource they are, because again...once they're gone, they're gone.

Charles Houston

Pre-yuppieLoudouner, you sound like a "property rights" kook. Your LAND is worth less than $300,000. If you have built a mega-mansion on it, then you're no farmer, just another greedy soul. By all means move to Georgia. It's my home state and if it weren't so hot in the summer it would be tempting. For you, please choose something below the Gnat Line.


Charles Houston there is no "mega mansion".Just the house my (now deceased)parents had built back in 1972.Not that it's any of your business but the county assessment of the property is currently $700,000.My dad's side of the family lives in Georgia.If my property rights make me a "kook"I won't lose any sleep over it.


Charles Houston you really have your panties in a wad,knowing I plan to do what I want and there's nothing you can do to change it.All you people come here and expect the gate to be slammed shut after you arrive.The population of this county has increased nearly tenfold since we came here in 1971.Do you think you could load a trailer with 5 bulls,by yourself,and drive them to a sale in Cartersville,Ga.,by yourself?I seriously doubt it.


Exactly! Haven't Loudoun's administrators heard of the "Build it and they will come!" mantra. All they have to do is look at (any) development in Loudoun to see that development begets development. It's funny how all county conservation ears turn deaf when the words Data Center are spoken....Cha-Ching! The skyline views are disappearing quickly in Ashburn, as lines of huge data center concrete walls surround us, taking up huge plots of land. Sadly, I feel this will be Loudoun's future, until the last tree falls to commercial developers. I had planned to retire in Loudoun, but all the development and associated traffic has changed my mind. All I hear is a lot of political flag-waving, then complete turn-about in what actually is enacted.

Chad Davis

Don't vote for politicians who take $$$ from developers - Democrat or Republican.


I hope to sell my 29 and a half acre farm near Hillsboro within the next 5 years.I want to relocate to Georgia and spend the rest of my life in a genuine agricultural area.Before all you urban transplants bombard me with pleas to change my mind or devalue my land with a conservation easement,here's a proposal;buy my place for $1,000,000.00 and you can preserve it all you want.


If you're headed to a "genuine agricultural area" here's a hint- 29 and 1/2 acres doesn't make a farm. This goes for Loudoun and probably wherever you're headed.


AFF--question, what do you consider to be a "genuine agricultural area"? Would you consider places in the Midwest like Iowa, where farmers have hundreds of acres?


V, I consider any area that agricultural products are being produced to be a genuine agricultural area. A 10 acre vegetable plot can produce more revenue than a 50 acre lawn farm. There are quite a few small operations in Loudoun and Clarke that do way more business than the larger plot they were pared off from when the old farmer threw in the towel.

Most of the farmers growing commodity crops are subject to the whims of Wall Street- the farmer gets paid last after everyone else whereas most of the more successful local operations sell directly to the consumer.

For a good taste of what went on in the Loudoun farming scene from say 1970 until the present read Forest Pritchard's book Gaining Ground.

With that said, in this region it takes between 3-5 acres of good pasture to support one large grazing animal for one season (spring, summer. fall) You do the math for our Yuppie friend.


AFF--thank you very much for the information. It was very informative and helpful.


So how many paid for acres do you have?


AFF says "3-5 acres of good pasture to support one large grazing animal for one season"

Really? sounds like you may be a little over. You can run one head on 3-6 acres of tame pasture in Texas... And it's hot enough there to glaze pottery there. Virginia gets about 10 times the amount of rain, so I would think rates might be a bit better...especially if you are rotational grazing properly


I forgot to ask,how big is your farm?I'm a member of a cattlemens association.One of the members owns three ranches in Georgia.His area hasn't changed in the 30 years he's been there.Get off the interstate once in a while,if you have ever visited Georgia except to change planes in Atlanta.


How big is my farm?

As anyone in farming knows, and as anyone in any cattleman association will surely let you know, bragging about how much land you have, or asking the same just isn't done.

You may as well as one the guys how much money he has or how big his johnson is.


I doubt most of the people moving into Loudoun are urban transplants. Most likely just families who live in a different suburb around the metro area.

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