Guest Editorial by Malcolm Baldwin
Despite Loudoun’s increasingly vibrant rural economy, rural residents fear that forces of sprawl may erase the economic, recreational, historic, and environmental values that Loudoun residents now enjoy. That fear affects debate over Metro to Loudoun, allying some rural residents with the no-tax, Tea Party/Koch Brothers Metro opposition. But, in fact, Metro offers positive opportunities for enhancing our rural economy, if we energetically pursue practical policies open to us. Otherwise, with – and especially without – Metro, Loudoun’s unique rural economy – that some call our oft-neglected economic “weapon” – risks a diminished future and a loss of what is arguably our county’s greatest competitive advantage.
One of Loudoun’s strengths has been the growing county-wide consensus that a highly developed east complements our rural west. Rural zoning fights that dominated Loudoun politics from 2004 to 2007 ended with an imperfect but still broadly-supported rural zoning that never even became a political issue in the 2011 local elections. Twenty-acre zoning in the northern part (mostly the Catoctin District), and 40-acre zoning in the south (mostly Blue Ridge) – albeit compromised some by the opportunities for clustering – has strengthened our rural economy over the past five years. The evidence is in the rising numbers of vineyards, wineries, tourists, events like the Farm Tour and the Wine Country Half-Marathon, and the growing popularity of fresh and local foods produced right here in Loudoun. Increasingly, eastern Loudoun residents appreciate that the rural west enhances their suburban life, and Loudoun’s economy as a whole.
Nevertheless, rural Loudoun remains vulnerable to impacts from heedless sprawl and the specter of some 40,000 already-allowed but unbuilt housing sites in the west. Some rural residents now fear that bringing Metro to Loudoun will add to this risk and that Loudoun’s future commercial development will be poorly managed, with sprawling residential growth around the new stations and eventual migration of new residents westward.
Bad planning around Loudoun’s Metro stations could indeed move the center of development west and fail to inhibit sprawl in rural Loudoun. Loudoun’s past promotion of costly growth naturally raises alarms. But a history of planning failures, coupled with Loudoun’s future growth projections, highlights the even more serious threats to our rural economy without Metro. Without Metro growth centers, where will Loudoun’s population increase and resulting development pressures find release?
From past experience alone, it’s a no brainer: these pressures will undermine our rural zoning and our rural economy. In fact, however, if we approve Metro in Loudoun we actually have the opportunity to control our destiny and achieve substantial commercial growth, vastly reduce pressure on residential taxes, and greatly enhance rural economic security and expansion.
The Robert Charles Lesser & Co.’s economic study of Metro’s impact, commissioned by our Board of Supervisors and updated recently, concluded that stations in Loudoun would induce dense growth centers around them, reducing growth in Fairfax and in Loudoun’s rural west. It suggests that these centers will attract childless households that minimize pressures on public services and schools, and we know from other studies that these groups increasingly value compact, walkable communities. With special tax districts for those benefiting most from Metro, and planning for appropriate density, we can foster concentrated commercial growth and long-term tax benefits to Loudoun homeowners throughout the County.
New Metro station centers can also protect and enhance our rural economy if we improve rural economic incentives and adopt appropriate market-based approaches to urban planning. One proven tool that is already available under Virginia law is to establish a system of Transferable Development Rights (“TDRs”), whereby development rights in rural Loudoun can be sold to buyers near the new Metro station centers. Neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland promotes such transfers and has protected over 52,000 acres of farmland with its TDR program. In its agricultural areas that have been down-zoned to allow only one house per 25 acres, rural land owners can sell development rights they had under the previous zoning designation of 1 unit per 5 acres to a buyer in an area designated for higher density growth elsewhere in the County. This private transaction between a rural seller (generally a farmer) and urban buyer (usually a developer) applies efficient market principles to landowner and community goals.
For Loudoun County, the TDR offers an extraordinarily useful market system tool – albeit with complexities requiring careful attention — to transfer development rights from a willing seller in the rural west to a buyer engaged development around the new Metro stations. That opportunity will not exist with a terminal Metro station at Dulles Airport that falls within the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA).
We should welcome, and not fear Metro’s impact. If our Board approves Metro into Loudoun it offers immense opportunities for sustainable commercial development, sensible centers of growth and rural economy enhancement. But that happy prospect requires additional measures to nail down these benefits through informed debate, rational decision-making and continued consensus that Loudoun’s rural economy stands as a critical value and competitive asset that the County must protect.