Seventeen years ago, Loudoun County recognized that the development train was barreling down on us and would, if unchecked, soon smack into citizens’ desires to preserve our rural countryside. The County’s 2001 Comprehensive Plan stated: “The Plan recognizes the failure of previous County efforts to control rural residential growth and proposes new policies, incentives and supporting regulations that will lower overall densities ...” (emphasis added)
Sadly, in the intervening years, not only did the County fail to stop or even slow suburban expansion into rural areas, but it actually allowed rural densities to increase by 80 percent. The train continued on down the tracks, full speed ahead.
The impacts of the unabated growth on Loudoun citizens’ livelihoods and quality of life include:
To date, the net cost to County taxpayers of providing schools, police and emergency services, parks, and other public services to this expanded rural population has been about $300 million.
The County lost one-fifth of its remaining farm land.
Each new residence added an average of ten automobile trips per day to our rural roads, causing increasing congestion and dangerous driving conditions.
Many of our scenic byways and view sheds became lined with subdivisions that resemble the suburban neighborhoods in Centreville and Fairfax more than our historic rural hamlets.
Powerful economic forces have been driving these changes. The rapid growth of the Washington DC area has generated huge demand for new housing, making the development of relatively low-priced rural real estate extremely profitable. The 2008 financial crisis barely dented that trend. Development interests were naturally eager to exploit the commercial opportunities.
In 2000-2003, the County made an attempt to stem the tide, introducing new zoning rules that limited development to one dwelling per 20 acres in the northwest of the County and one per 50 acres in the southwest. Before those rules could be put in place, however, a group of landowners and developers persuaded the state Supreme Court to delay implementation. While this legal process was underway, developers submitted applications for more than 60 subdivisions on 4,478 acres in rural Loudoun.
The 2005-2006 legal battle also provided time for a new, pro-growth Board of Supervisors to water down the previous Board’s preservationist policies – in particular by providing an option for developers to build dense “cluster subdivisions” on rural land. Those policies, a legacy of the housing bubble that preceded the 2008 financial crash, remain in effect to this day.
Today, there are more than 85 approved developments under construction in Loudoun’s rural areas. Because of the sheer number of these developments, many of which sit on prominent hilltops and ridge lines, there are large parts of the County’s “rural policy area” in which there is no direction you can look without seeing more subdivisions than farms. Homeowners’ covenants in many of these developments explicitly prohibit farming and other agricultural activities on land that the County intended to set aside for “rural economy uses.”
Through the Envision Loudoun process, we are now in the process of preparing a new Comprehensive Plan. As was the case 17 years ago, public comments on rural policy overwhelmingly call for efforts to slow or stop further development. A recent University of Virginia poll confirmed that Loudoun’s rural scenery and outdoor recreational opportunities are among what County citizens (from both urban and rural areas) love the most about living here.
Our interests are not just aesthetic. Loudoun’s rural areas provide the foundation for a wide range of thriving agri-tourism businesses that pay over $660 million in gross wages per year to more than 17,000 local workers. Those businesses generate more than $27 million in County and local taxes, helping to contain tax burdens on individual households throughout the County. By contrast, building and maintaining schools, emergency response, and other public services to support new developments in rural areas costs County taxpayers millions more per year than the real estate revenues generated.
Unfortunately, the Envision Loudoun “Stakeholders Committee” appears unaware of the rapid loss of our rural land in the recent past, and unconcerned with what it means for our future. Ignoring that rural densities have almost doubled since 2000, the Committee is projecting an additional 60 percent increase by 2040. It does not address what this “business as usual” approach means for our farm and tourism businesses, or for the overall quality of life of people living in both the east and the west of the County.
It is past time to instill a greater sense of urgency on this issue in County planning and decision-making, backed by more meaningful citizen participation. The 2019 Board of Supervisors elections will be a critical opportunity to do that. Save Rural Loudoun will be working with our partner organizations to organize public forums and meeting with candidates to help improve the general understanding of rural policy issues and build consensus on practical solutions. We look forward to helping the County transform the longstanding lip service for rural preservation into concrete and effective actions.
John Ellis is a board member of Save Rural Loudoun.