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First Look at Envision Loudoun Results

March 8, 2017 by Andrea Gaines filed under Development, News 1 Comment

On February 23, the Loudoun County Planning Department presented to the Board of Supervisors the results of Phase 1 of Envision Loudoun, the County’s ongoing effort to update and rewrite the County’s Comprehensive Plan.

A fact-finding exercise for the Comp Plan rewrite, the information being gathered includes a full documentation and analysis of the market, housing and other business, employment, and lifestyle trends impacting Loudoun, along with input from citizens, public officials, and stakeholder groups about where they want the County to go.

Both sides of the growth debate seem to want more control and less unpredictability in planning and zoning policies. But, that is where the consensus begins and ends.

When asked “How will we know when we have succeeded?” one pro-growth participant said – rather bluntly … “When higher density is approved.” But another participant countered with “… when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors learns to say ‘enough is enough’ to developers.”

A Carefully Orchestrated Effort
Loudoun’s Comprehensive Plan was last updated in 2001. While the intervening years have delivered on the dreams of some, they have shattered the dreams of others. The participant who said success will be measured by whether or not “the farms are still here,” may be worried. The individual who wants “the type of growth that has occurred in Arlington County over the past 30-40 years,” may be feeling pretty good at the moment.

Adding to the high-stakes is the belief of developers that obstacles to success include NIMBY attitudes and exclusionary zoning. While the other side include is concerned that the developer community has a lock on the planning process – because of its voting control over the ZOAG and the Envision Loudoun Stakeholders Committee.

“A Community-Based Vision … for Loudoun County”
The perception that developers have an undue influence has put County leaders in a defensive posture.

For this reason, listening and learning participation rates are presented in a consistently strong, front-and-center manner at every opportunity, with the County reinforcing the huge effort it has put forth to get citizens involved.Highlights of that citizen participation include six public input sessions – some of which featured several hundred people, 1,400 online and in-person participants, and 5,000+ individual comments.

Also in the mix are the directives in the Comp Plan Charter – prepared by the BOS in 2016. While citizen input favors strong controls on development, the plan charter is less clear. Citizens want to preserve the Transition Policy Area – which today serves as a buffer between the suburban east and rural west. But, according to the plan charter, “… the new plan will outline policies for addressing the most pressing issues Loudoun faces …” including the future of the TPA.

A 24-Hour Streetscape vs. Dark Skies
Participants in Envision Loudoun were asked what needs to be done to make Loudoun County a better community in the future … how success would be defined … and what obstacles participants see to achieving success.

Some participants favored Fairfax-style development while others sought a virtual moratorium on new construction.

One pro-growth Loudouner favors projects that allow people to live where they work and work where they play, a nod to mixed-use developments, including town-center-style “24-Hour-Streetscapes.” But, others want to support what they say is working. “We need to follow our comprehensive plan for maintaining a vibrant rural economy in Loudoun that includes all segments of agriculture,” said a rural-business promoter. Pointing out that within the state of Virginia, Loudoun is number one in wineries, grape acres, and berry production, the participant continued, “We need to recognize that we are doing a good job, and address small regulatory and zoning issues when they arise, but not lose sight of the fact that it has been a success!”

We also have the playful and oddly cosmic among us. Said one participant, “Keep Western Loudoun Wild and Weird!”

A Better Future for Loudoun – By the Numbers
Overall, a clear majority of participants see the balanced approach taken by the current comprehensive plan as a successful one. And, they want that balanced approach – as represented by a suburban east, a transitional middle, and a rural west – preserved.

When asked what kinds of things would make Loudoun an even better community in the future, over 23 percent expressed support for transportation improvements, often in relationship to specific developments. On that point, pro-development advocates and those supporting slower growth were often in agreement.

A nearly equal number of people – 22.5 percent – saw opportunities for improvements to the “Built Environment.” This broad category includes ideas and opinions relating to zoning policies and regulations, land use planning, and how development patterns succeed – or fail — to protect historic places, sensitive environments, and small town character. In the category of the Built Environment, data centers were the focus of dozens and dozens of comments challenging the negative impacts they can have on communities.

The preservation of our environmental and agricultural heritage was cited by 15.4 percent as the way to improve Loudoun; 11.6 percent cited lifestyle issues – including parks and recreation, and county amenities dedicated to the arts, youth, sports, and health; 6.4 percent cited gains in employment; 4.6 percent cited housing, including affordable housing; 4.3 percent cited community infrastructure assets, including the internet; and 4 percent cited greater services for seniors and others.

Next Step for Envision Loudoun
Most Envision Loudoun participants seem to agree that growth – whether you love it, hate it, or simply accept it –is not going away. The question will be, will the County take its cue from the citizenry to preserve a balanced approach between the old and the new?

In the coming months the County will continue to engage the public and various stakeholders, and hope to answer that question with something akin to a “vision” for all three policy areas – the suburban east, the transitional middle, and the rural west.

In defining what success would look like in this process, one commuter said, “When it doesn’t take 30 minutes to get from Brambleton to Rt. 50.” Another said, “When we have reduced the number of dirt roads by 80 percent.”

People love shorter commutes … but as the county with more miles of dirt roads that any other in Virginia, we also know and love the idea of a slow and scenic ride.

So, what will Loudoun’s future look like?

1 comment

  1. Martha Polkey says:

    It remains to be seen whether the direction citizens have provided to the Envision process is actually incorporated into the plan. There is no sign that Ricky Barker’s planning department has any plans for a thorough analysis of citizen input. Already one can see a curious categorization of the thousands of comments–for example, a citizen comment beginning “Stop the unmitigated high density growth and ugly data centers. My family moved from Fairfax 15 years ago because we did not like the congestion and density. We wanted green…” is categorized under “Built environment, data centers.” Did a robot do this sorting task?

    Also of great concern is the characterization of Loudoun’s Transition and Rural areas as thousands of acres of “undeveloped land.” This is developer lingo. Farmers, strangely, don’t think of their pasture- and cropland that way.

    Further concern should be raised with sinister errors in the document–notably, describing Route 15 as a Corridor of Statewide Significance. It is not. (County Transportation staff have acknowledged this is an error.) Has anyone fact-checked the document?

    The peculiar structure of the document, with housing and transportation in separate chapters, unconnected by the constraints that should bind them together closely, bodes ill for the concept that the transportation network and other infrastructure deficits must constrain development. Given the development-industry-sponsored new law that sharply constrains a locality’s ability to obtain proffers to pay for that infrastructure, this is a greater challenge in 2017 than it was in 2002.

    The debacle we now face in Loudoun (as the recent UVA survey says, citizens’ chief concerns are overdevelopment and transportation) is a direct result of Loudoun’s quadrupled population amidst starkly inadequate funds for expanding the transportation network. The start to this plan looks like more of the same.

    With most of those named by Barker to the stakeholders’ committee in the development industry, and most of them not even bothering to speak up at meetings (as though the plan is already in a drawer in Barker’s office and the $2 million we are paying for this process is just for show), I’d say citizens should be gravely concerned when they look at the slick but detail-empty documents so far presented.

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