Said western Loudoun resident Peggy McElligott, who participated in Envision Loudoun’s online exercises: “ … any plan should maintain the rural character of Western Loudoun and not interfere with rural tourism, which fails when the character of the neighborhood is no longer rural.”
Loudoun County held a series of public Listening & Learning workshops in November and December of 2016, part of the five-phase, multi-year effort to review its County-wide Comprehensive Plan. The process includes in-person workshops, an interactive website that mirrors the workshop exercises, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and other ways to participate in the planning process. The website portal – www.envision-loudoun.org – is available to citizens through the early part of January. All citizen- and stakeholder-input will then be organized as part of the next phase of the effort, when the County tries to put what it has learned into practice.
An Open Forum with an Uncertain Endgame
The County’s goal with Envision Loudoun is to solicit input to “Help make Loudoun County an even better place to live, learn, work, visit, shop, and raise a family.”
The outpouring of opposition to the the AT&T project on Short Hill Mountain, the Catesby Farm event center, and the special exceptions approved as part of the Kirkpatrick West Commercial Center demonstrate the durability of people’s desire to put limits on development, and get themselves back behind the wheel.
But, sustained pressure by developers to open more of Loudoun to suburban-style development, and to scale back on open space and other protections, while speeding up approvals, leaves the answer to a basic question still unknown: How and where will Envision Loudoun break up the County zoning map?
Kelly Burk has served on the Leesburg Town Council and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, and on New Year’s Day assumed her newly-elected position as Mayor of Leesburg, parts of which fall into the Transition Policy area. An experienced planner, Burk is clear on at least one Comp Plan issue. Said Burk in a recent interview with the Blue Ridge Leader, “If we don’t preserve the Transition Policy Area, there is something wrong with us,” linking the conservation of the rural west to the zoning laws that temper development in and on the borders of the TPA.
The Harris Teeter development decision, a hotly debated issue within the BOS, saw a 5-3-1 vote in favor of a 30 percent increase in the size of a Harris Teeter grocery store in the low-density TPA. Supervisor Tony Buffington has expressed support for protecting areas that his Blue Ridge District constituents want to save, but he also holds the view that TPA lands bordering on more densely zoned land carry their protections “in name only.”
Divergent Interests, Competing Visions and Blue Stickers
The wide variety of the individual, non-profit, business, neighborhood, and governmental participants in the Envision Loudoun exercise reinforces more than anything the complexity of issues the County has before it in updating the Comprehensive Plan.
In the mix are individual farmers and small agricultural companies that make their living off the land. There are marketing companies whose clients seek to build “new urbanism communities.” There are individual property owners looking for ways to protect historic properties that have been in their families for generations. And there are individual property owners looking for site-specific zoning changes that will make their land more valuable.
In workshop and online exercises, citizens are directed to address two broad issues regarding Loudoun’s future: “What do we need to do to make Loudoun County an even better community in the future?” and “How will we get there?” Participants cover maps with blue stickers identifying where they live, and place red stickers to show what kind of zoning they think appropriate for various locales. Participants may put a note in a western Loudoun village showing an old neighborhood they think needs protection, a now-open area where they’d like to see dense development, or a place they want reserved for open space. Importantly, participants include everyday citizens, and people in the planning and zoning business, including developers.
These people have expertise that individual members of the Board of Supervisors may draw upon, whether they represent developers or historic and wildlife experts who sit on the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Group, for example, which is charged by law to make specific zoning recommendations to the BOS. ZOAG in particular, chaired by top executives in some of Loudoun’s largest developer partnerships, will have significant influence on what the Comp Plan looks like, tempered, citizen groups hope, by the preservation instincts of the general public.
Numbers Versus Quality of Life
Loudoun County is home to more than 375,000 people, and covers 5,200 square miles. It is diverse, both culturally and economically.
But, the bigger picture – the heart of the matter from a zoning and development perspective – is that Loudoun County encompasses an area as important to the nation’s history as any in the country, and includes natural environments essential to the health of the entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The county has so far managed to retain a sense of both the old and the new, and profited mightily from that.
At the same time, cutting-edge companies want in and Metro wants in. New residential development is booming, and commercial development aims to follow. Upwards of 3,000 new residential permits were issued in FY 2012, a combined total of more than 8,500 in FY 2013/2014, and a combined total of more than 7,500 in FY 2015/2016.
It sounds like a silly question, but the question is out there, and being asked in earnest: Where will Loudoun’s more than 1,400 farms, hundreds of precious historical assets – and more than 15,000 horses! – go, if growth is allowed to continue at this pace, steamrolling from east to west?
Where is the balance, and will the Comp Plan review answer that question?
Platforms for citizen participation in the effort to rewrite Loudoun’s Comprehensive Plan include: On the web –www.envision-loudoun.org; on Twitter; twitter.com/envisionloudoun; on Facebook; www.facebook.com/envisionloudoun. All are also encouraged to send comments to their individual Supervisors. E-mails can be found at www.loudoun.gov.