– By Andrea Gaines
Last month, County officials released a preliminary report summarizing the results of a second round of Envision Loudoun Listening & Learning workshops. The workshops represented a mid-point of sorts in the ongoing effort to rewrite the countywide Comprehensive Plan, as planning officials gathered feedback on the draft vision, goals, and objectives developed as an outgrowth of a first set of Listening & Learning workshops.
While the public has been actively engaged in the Envision Loudoun process, and is quite clear in its desire to – at minimum – not look like Fairfax in ten or twenty years, ensuring that this sentiment survives the journey from public input to County law is proving to be more elusive than County officials might care to admit.
As one very thoughtful Envision Loudoun participant noted in round two: “ … The hollow core of the public input process was underscored by the announcement at the beginning of the meeting that over 5,000 public comments had been compiled and evaluated by consultant staff. It was an indication of the premium given to the quantity of data, not the character of that data … nowhere in the process was there an opportunity for the participants to express their preferences among a defined set of paths to alternatives futures …”
In other words, while planning officials and decision makers have lots of raw numbers to look at, a path forward has yet to emerge. Observers of the process see lots of activity, lots of data collection, lots of varying opinions. But, the big questions looming at the start of the process, including what kind of development Loudouners should expect in the coming years, where it will go and on what timeline, remain unanswered.
The draft vision and goals statement developed by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors reads: “Loudoun county 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.”
Per the recent report released by the County, when asked “Given what you have heard, do the vision, goals and objectives move us in the right direction? Why? Why not?,” only 13 percent of round two participants identified themselves as generally “supportive” of the draft statement. It covered the right topics, said participants. It was comprehensive and otherwise “going in the right direction.”
18 percent of participants were identified as “not supportive” of the statement – indicating that it was “vague,” not unique enough to Loudoun, and/or not sufficiently specific or precise. Here there seemed to be a good deal of confusion as to how the statement might apply to different parts of the County, including the rural west.
32 percent of participants were identified as “supportive” of the statement, “with changes.”
And, 36.5 percent – the largest number of participants – were grouped into a category identified as “other.” These individuals did not say whether they supported or disapproved of the statement. Rather, when asked that question, these individuals addressed another subject, with the most common – in descending order – being transportation and traffic, the natural environment, development, housing, the impacts of development on the landscape, and support for natural resources/the environment.
Planning officials characterized these preliminary results in this way: “ … Given the fact that 81 percent of comments were either ‘supportive,’ ‘supportive with changes,’ or ‘other,’ no changes are recommended for the overall Vision, Goals and Objectives draft at this point.”
The report goes on to say that in the final report, the 1,700+ comments gathered in round two will be used to aid in the development of the new Comprehensive Plan.
But, how and to what end? … people following the Envision Loudoun process may wonder.
For example, under the current Comprehensive Plan the County is divided into three main zoning areas – the Suburban Policy Area to the east, the Rural Policy Area to the west, and the Transition Policy Area in the middle, acting as a natural buffer between the east and the west.
The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors choose not to address any of these policy areas in its draft vision, goals and objectives statement, and it did not go unnoticed by the individuals who participated in round two. In round two – as in round one – support for this three-part growth management strategy is strong, clear and sustained, particularly with respect to the protective effect a lower density Transition Policy Area can have on the rural west, and the logic of concentrating higher densities in the suburban east.
Per the reasons behind citizens’ lack of strong support for the statement, a large number of people were critical of the process, feeling that the open-ended format was preventing the County from getting down to the what, where and when of growth. One described the process as having “lots of info,” but “general, vague, no specific goals, nothing measureable, how do we get there?” “Sounds good but no meat,” said another.
Finally, participants are quite consistent in their belief that there is both great opportunity and great peril in where the Envision Loudoun process may take us.
Said one: “The impression [I get] from reading the Vision, Goals, and Objectives is that the County considerers building and development as the only path moving forward.” Said another: “If there is any place in the country that can do great things – it is Loudoun.”