Housing Summit Testimony Repeats Call for Major Density Changes
– By Andrea Gaines
In testimony submitted to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors 2017 Housing Summit, the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association called on the County to relax density rules and open up more land – east, west and middle – to development. Pushing for maximum residential densities as part of the ongoing Envision Loudoun process, the developer-funded group did not mince words: “To put it simply, NVBIA advocates for policies that accommodate all types of housing in all planning areas …”
We’re Still 18,300 Homes Short
NVBIA’s testimony, supported on virtually all points by testimony from the Dulles Area Association of Realtors and other pro-growth advocates, is based on the controversial George Mason University housing needs assessment released in February.
That study – based on Washington D.C. regional growth rates extrapolated to the year 2040 – projects that “64,355 new households are expected to want to live in Loudoun County.” Based on the number of housing units that will be available during that time, claims NVBIA – including the 65,900 new construction permits issued by the County from 2000 to 2015 – Loudoun is still nearly 20,000 units short.
Taking an inside look at regional employment sectors, housing prices and trends, commuter patterns, residential vacancy rates, ownership rates, and more, the report assumes that the County will want to liberalize its zoning laws to accommodate any and all growth.
Blowing Smart Growth – and the Transition Policy Area – out of the Water.
The thousands of citizen comments taken by the County during the Envision Loudoun process show strong and sustained support for the three-part growth management strategy supporting a suburban east, a transitional middle, and a rural west.
The “housing assessment” has the power to blow that strategy – developed in 2003 as the smart growth alternative to runaway development – out of the water.
The wholesale changes to the comprehensive Plan being pushed by DAAR and the NVBIA stand in direct contradiction to that citizen sentiment. And, based the negative comments members of the Board of Supervisors report to have repeatedly received – 400 to 500 emails according to one – the public is not taking it well.
The Envision Loudoun Stakeholders Committee position is that Loudoun’s future housing needs are “above what can be achieved” by the current Comprehensive Plan. In September, the Board was presented with three scenarios.
Scenario 1, which the Stakeholders described as the “status quo” – in deference to overwhelming citizen support to leave the TPA as is – proposed no changes to land use within the TPA. As zoned, the area will add 2,800 new residential units and 709,000 sq. ft. of industrial use, accompanied by 50 to 70 percent open space; and that would not change.
Scenario 2, which the Stakeholders described as “strategic changes” – recommended industrial development in certain areas of the TPA. Open space areas would be maintained, along with buffers along Goose Creek. This scenario, however, would add more than 30 million sq. ft. of industrial uses, 1.12 million sq. ft. of retail, and 12,000 additional residential units to the TPA, including smaller lot sizes and smaller housing units. Some commercial buildings would also be added to accommodate the steep increase in housing.
In Scenario 3, the TPA would be, not just fundamentally changed, but enlarged. The area would be rezoned to allow for 18,300 residential units, more than 37 million sq. ft. of industrial use and 1.12 million sq. ft. of retail. This scenario also proposed adding two large areas now in the Rural Policy Area to the TPA – including lands along Shreve Mill Road and the Dulles Greenway east of Leesburg, and other lands along Evergreen Mills Road.
The Board Reacts
Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) – citing “a couple of comments in the newspapers” about the 18,300 number – asked Planning Commission and Stakeholder Committee Chair Jeff Salmon to explain how he came up with that.
Salmon said that the Stakeholders task was to run that 18,300 number “in different areas.” If Loudoun’s Department of Transportation and Capital Infrastructure had said, “Hey, if you want to put 12,000 houses in the Lower-Foley Subarea of the Transition Area … we’re going to need to make Rt. 50 a 12-lane road,” we’d “recalculate,” that the numbers were “premature.”
That response did not seem to satisfy Supervisor Ron A. Meyers (R-Broad Run), who suggested that the numbers had basically set the public on fire. “From a PR side, it really hurts our future efforts,” he said.
Supervisor Kristin A. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) wanted to know if the Stakeholders would follow up with information about how County schools and roads would be impacted. Supervisor Tony R. Buffington, Jr. (R-Blue Ridge) wanted the Board to be able to follow the Stakeholders work more closely. He understood the complexity of the committee’s task, but had also had been surprised by the TPA densities.
Salmon said that the Board might get “more houses than you want in a particular area … it might not be pretty. But “housing is a big need” and there are only four places housing can go, “The Suburban Area, the Silver Line Area, the Transition Policy Area, or in somebody else’s county.”
One Billion Dollars In
Gem Bingol, speaking on behalf of the Piedmont Environmental Council, called it “counterproductive” to take a business-as-usual approach to future development … approving more-dense, “potentially-lower-cost” housing projects within the TPA. “Suburban residents mired in more traffic from the Transition Area coming east will have a reduced quality of life and potentially lower home values – it’s not a sustainable solution,” said Bingol.
Transit-oriented development is the way to go, she said. The County should concentrate virtually all future growth around the Silver Line Metro. A triple win for the County, this would provide new companies with a place to operate, increase the tax base the County needs to sustain transportation infrastructure such as Metro, and give those companies’ workers an affordable place to live.
PEC and others want the County to “drive a better bargain” in the growth debate.
Growth is costly from both a fiscal and a quality of life perspective; unmanaged growth even more so. Someone has to pay for the roads, schools, water treatment plants, even the stop lights. Under many developer proposals, builders would get both increased densities and pay less towards the costs of development – in exchange for building less expensive units, for example.
According to the Transition Area Alliance, Loudoun’s population has grown from just under 250,000 residents in 2005, to over 385,000 residents in 2017, a nearly 60 percent increase.
Student populations increased by 76 percent, and the County budget by 145 percent – from $1 billion in 2005 to $2.5 billion in 2017, 70 percent of which goes to schools. This growth, argues the Alliance, has resulted, not only in overburdened roads, a degradation in water quality, the loss of open space, and a mad race to build new roads, but, also “more than a billion dollars in accumulated debt” as the County struggles to keep up with public infrastructure demands, including the new schools.
Vs. Workforce Housing
The Housing Summit came about as the result of the BOS’s desire to address housing affordability in Loudoun County.
As part of its strategic planning effort, the Board had agreed to “increase the use of public-private partnerships to provide affordable housing as a means to support a vibrant economy.”
Per GMU, more and faster residential development, county-wide, is the key – hence it’s controversial conclusions. Specifically: “The ability for Loudoun County to meet its full economic development potential and to remain a vibrant and growing community is not assured. Loudoun County, as well as the greater Washington DC metropolitan area, face unprecedented challenges to its economic competitiveness …”
The remedy here, says NVBIA is to accommodate new housing virtually everywhere, searching out opportunities to “mix uses in residential and commercial zones … allowing more variety of uses in residential and commercial zones.” Planners should “do away with” housing-only, or commercial-only zoning categories.” “Land-intensive, full amenity communities” should be downsized to fit in the east’s “lack of available land.” “Don’t fear the Density word,” says NVBIA.
But, Loudouners do fear the density word. “Density” is a real estate terms meaning how much – of anything – can be built on a given piece of land. Thus, higher densities allow developers to build more houses on smaller lots, for example.
As BOS Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-Chair-at-Large) said in a recent message to citizens: “I believe this Board does not have the appetite to approve 12,000 or 18,000 additional units as proposed by staff and the Stakeholders Committee respectively. The idea of putting 18,000 units in the Transition Policy Area is illogical. I requested that the Stakeholders include bike and pedestrian trails in the plan because it was the first need mentioned by the public in the outreach sessions. I also requested that the Stakeholders look at a diverse housing stock with diverse pricing. Affordable housing is not the same as workforce housing.”
A third round of Envision Loudoun public outreach sessions is scheduled for January 2018.
Time will tell where the Envision Loudoun experiment will take the County and what control the citizens feel they will be able to exert.