For decades, county policy documents have proclaimed Loudoun’s desire to preserve its rapidly vanishing farmland. These clear and oft-repeated policy declarations might encourage citizens to believe that something was actually being done. Unfortunately, they would be wrong.
Recently, community advocates met with county staff to point out that many newly approved rural subdivisions fail to protect high quality farmland. Instead, developers intentionally concentrate the construction of new houses, driveways, drain fields and other housing infrastructure on Loudoun’s best agricultural soils.
Participants asked how the county could continue to approve developments that obliterate prime farmland when, just two months ago, the county Board of Supervisors re-confirmed its longstanding policy to “retain farmland and the vitality of the rural economy.”
Shockingly, county staff confirmed that they do not take the impact on farmland into account when they review rural subdivision applications. They explained that the county’s farmland preservation policies have no enforceable legal effect because they are not incorporated into the county’s zoning ordinances. The county can and does enforce regulations to preserve wetlands, steep slopes, historic sites, and other rural assets, all of which have been incorporated into the zoning ordinances. However, there are no comparable zoning provisions that authorize them to require developers to preserve prime farmland.
The county has had decades to introduce such regulations, but so far has not made the effort. Instead, as more and more farmland disappeared each year, it has persisted in the misguided notion that developers would preserve farmland out of their own free will.
In the midst of a furious battle over rural preservation twenty years ago, pro-growth interests pushed through a “compromise” zoning rule for rural areas called the “cluster subdivision option.” This provision allowed developers to build dense housing subdivisions, provided that 70 percent of each property was assigned to “rural economy lots” on which farming or other rural commercial activities were expected to continue. The advocates claimed this would serve the needs both of developers and preservationists: developers would get to build many more houses while farmland “could be” preserved in the rural economy lots.
Unfortunately, there is a big difference between “could be” and “would be.” From a purely financial perspective, it is much cheaper for developers to build houses on farmland than on rocky slopes, wetlands and other terrain. If given a choice, therefore, they will always build new houses on the farmland. The county’s standing zoning ordinances allow that to happen.
As a result, the county has allowed subdivision developers to permanently destroy more than 132 square miles of Loudoun farmland since 1987. Unless something happens to change this process, Loudoun will soon face a “tipping point” where so much of its rural land will be lost to housing developments that we will no longer have a viable rural economy.
What is to be done? The county faces difficult choices. If its longstanding policy of preserving farmland is not going to become a simple mockery, it will need to revise the zoning ordinances to require that future cluster subdivisions actually preserve prime farmland, as the County’s land use policies clearly intend.
There are a range of options, including: (1) Mandating that prime farmland be placed in “rural economy lots” and require that houses be built on less valuable soils; (2) Adopting a strong “transfer of development rights” or “purchase of development rights” program; and (3) Reducing the maximum permitted density of new “cluster subdivisions” in northwest Loudoun to align with the already existing density standards in southwest Loudoun. In principle, any of these options, or a combination of several, could save farmland and other rural countryside, while still allowing the construction of many new homes – a genuine win/win.
Unfortunately, we can expect the developer and building industries, which make large and generous financial contributions to most local political campaigns, to continue resisting any constraints on their ability to continue destroying the county’s prime farmland. It does not help that the county’s Planning Commission and Zoning Ordinance Action Group, which are charged with developing our zoning rules, are dominated by individuals who have personal business interests in those industries. Without intensive pressure from county supervisors or a re-balancing of the interests represented in those bodies, it may be unrealistic to expect them to modify ordinances that currently benefit their members’ own livelihoods.
At the end of the day, the result will depend on the extent to which the county’s citizens – particularly the majority of voters who live in the eastern part of the county – care about preserving our rapidly vanishing rural areas. Every poll shows that they overwhelmingly support preserving Loudoun’s remaining farmland and other rural areas. This year’s local elections will be an opportunity for them to express that preference. Given the current pace of development, it may be their last chance to affect the outcome.
John Ellis is chairman of the Save Rural Loudoun Board of Directors. More information can be found at saveruralloudounnow.org.