“The vision statement read like a box-checking exercise with an underlying message … to develop aggressively” -Purcellville Council Member Nedim Ogelman.
– By Andrea Gaines
The Envision Loudoun Comprehensive Plan rewrite process reveals nothing if not the intent on the part of the County’s leadership to get everyone’s ideas on what the Loudoun of the future should look like. A second round of Envision Loudoun public input sessions was held from June 5 to June 15 throughout the County. The County is also asking for more input through online surveys.
But, as the process reaches its mid-point this summer, many are openly questioning whether the public’s desire for innovative zoning solutions to the County’s skyrocketing growth rate, support for agricultural lands – and shared sacrifice in the preservation of Loudoun as a special place – has the power to impact what the County’s new Comp Plan will look like.
The Public Wants Managed
Growth – But Where Is It?
Throughout a first series of public input sessions held at the end of 2016 and into 2017, citizens expressed a clear preference for what they want to see: a slowdown, and, depending on the locale, a virtual cap on growth.
The second series of public input sessions held in June reinforces this point, as did Loudoun County’s most current Annual Resident Survey (2016). When asked to identify the single biggest problem facing Loudoun County, over 36 percent – more than one-third of survey respondents – said that the problem is growth and development – “too much, too fast, not planned well.”
Loudoun County residents east and west know that between the thousands of new residential units that have been added in the last 10 to 15 years, and the thousands more approved and/or already in the pipeline, Loudoun County is at a tipping point with little room to move without changing its identity.
Four Little Words –
“Land Available For Development”
The draft Vision Statement presented at Envision Loudoun’s June public input sessions makes no mention of the County’s long-standing Suburban, Transition, and Rural Policy Area growth management strategy, opting instead for a much more general proposition. Loudoun County sees itself, reads the statement, as a place that “Continues to flourish as a prosperous and inclusive community with a well-deserved reputation for great places, natural and built as well as historic and new, in a variety of settings. The County will foster economic innovation, fiscal strength, and sustainability.”
Not only was the word transition or the term Transition Policy Area missing from the big picture concepts presented to participants, but another phrase – land available for development – had worked its way in. 6,761 acres were presented as “available for development” in the TPA (30 percent of that area), and 1,208 acres were presented as “available for development” in the SPA (2 percent of that area).
Since the TPA today sets strict requirements for open space – and is intended to act as a buffer zone between east and west – the BRL reached out to County staff for comments about why all unbuilt lands in the TPA were positioned as “land available for development,” without a clear context for the TPA’s original purpose. A staff member responded, stating that he did not want to predefine the TPA for this exercise. The area’s original definition is “in the past,” and he said staff wanted to encourage the public “to look to the future.” The Envision Loudoun process is not conducive to discussing the past … staff didn’t want to give the public a purpose for the district.
Branded For Growth
Wary managed-growth advocates are increasingly uneasy and outspoken about what they see as the pro-growth tenor of the Envision Loudoun proceedings. Are all of the undeveloped lands in the Transition Policy Area, for example, to be the dumping ground for the growth knocking so loudly at the door?
Purcellville Town Council Member and former Town Planning Commissioner Nedim Ogelman, who attended the Envision Loudoun Workshop in June, said, “The vision statement read like a box-checking exercise with an underlying message … to develop aggressively.” With respect to the many areas of Loudoun County worth protecting – and the overwhelming and sustained citizen support for limiting growth in the Transition Policy Area and elsewhere – Ogelman expressed surprise at the Vision Statement’s lack of depth and responsiveness to citizen concerns. “The whole thing,” said Ogelman, “seems generic and unambitious, as if it has an underlying agenda of grow, grow, grow.”
The term “Envision Loudoun” is the branding concept developed for the County by a team of consultants* led by Kimley-Horn and Associates. The company is well known in planning, zoning, and engineering circles, having worked on some of the most high-profile growth- and development-related projects in the country.
For municipalities looking for management heft – and engineering, environmental, and regulatory expertise – KHA and others like it fit the bill, helping fast-growing counties like Loudoun navigate the complicated Comprehensive Plan process while avoiding public relations pitfalls.
Loudoun County has used various parts of the company’s expertise many times. For example, the County awarded Kimberly-Horn a 2013-2017, $1,745,000 contract for “Consulting Services for Transportation and Urban Planning, Design and Engineering” related to the Board of Supervisors’ transportation initiatives.
As previously reported, between 2000 and 2015, the BOS and the Loudoun County Planning Commission approved 65,700 residential units for development. Some of these numbers are reflected in a report developed for the County’s Envision Loudoun consultants, who say that current zoning policies provide for the addition of 51,000 new residential units, 29,000 of which are already approved and in the pipeline. 51,000 new residential units may be built by-right, of which nearly 30,000 are already being built.
A George Mason University study, touted by developers as a much more accurate reading of our future, predicts a “severe housing shortage under current planning and housing policies,” indicating a need for 18,300 additional homes – above current growth projections.
From a messaging perspective – or perhaps to help brand the whole process as an opportunity to rethink the County’s three-part rural, transitional, and suburban zoning/density scheme – pro-growth advocates had argued that specific references to the TPA and other zoning terms had no place in a County Vision Statement.
But, managed-growth proponents saw this as wordsmithing, free-floating language that could be used to justify crafting a new Comp Plan that focuses first and foremost on simply meeting market demand, with everything else, including Loudoun’s identity as a truly unique place, secondary.
Next Steps For Envision Loudoun
Two comments collected in the first round of public comments show the deep divide between pro-growth forces and those who want growth … tamed. When asked “How will we know when we have succeeded?” one participant said – rather bluntly … “When higher density is approved” while another said “ … when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors learns to say ‘enough is enough’ to developers.”
Mid-point in the process, while this divide has not been bridged, the public’s desire to fashion a new Comprehensive Plan, while protecting itself against excessive growth, is making a dramatic showing – challenging both the County’s leadership and the development community to work harder to save the Transition Policy Area and the rural west.
The question now is where Loudoun will go in terms of specific zoning policies – not just lofty Vision Statements – to make it all happen.
A detailed schedule for late summer and early fall Envision Loudoun events can be found at www.envision-loudoun.org.
*The Envision Loudoun team includes Kimley-Horn & Associates, Inc. (Northern Virginia office), teaming with McBride Dale Clarion, PlanningNEXT, Clarion Associates; Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, Inc.; and TischlerBise.