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.