– By Andrea Gaines
The next round of Envision Loudoun public input sessions is now many weeks away. Said Envision Loudoun spokesperson Christina Torrible in January: “We expect our next round of public outreach activity to take place in the Spring; we will be in touch with specific details about how you can participate.”
It had been anticipated that planners would be “putting it all together” by January 2018, with the public weighing in via a series of Plan Review Workshops. However, whether it is the sheer volume of work to be done or the intensity of the public’s interest in the process, Envision Loudoun seems to be in a brief holding pattern.
It is unclear whether the controversial True North data center vote – which set the Loudoun County Board of Supervisor’s Fall 2017 and early 2018 zoning agenda on fire – is contributing to that slowdown.
That issue came to a head in January when the BOS rezoned 105 acres in the Transition Policy Area for a data center owned by Compass Datacenter, a Dallas-based company.
The 750,000 sq. ft. facility on Goose Creek – vigorously opposed by citizen groups and many on the Loudoun County planning staff – is some five miles from Loudoun’s “data center alley,” and the first-ever to be approved in the Transition Policy Area. The action confirmed the belief of many that Envision Loudoun, while promoted as a citizen-driven process, is in the firm control of special interests, including the Envision Loudoun Stakeholders Committee.
The powerful committee is heavily-weighted towards the building and real estate industries, moderated – it was hoped – by citizen representatives from each of Loudoun’s nine districts, and representatives from community, preservation, and conservation groups.
The Stakeholders Committee and its subcommittees have met frequently – two, three, four, or more times a month, since July of last year.
While it is perhaps natural for the Stakeholders to push for greater housing, commercial, and industrial densities, there is growing unease about whether the group … is accountable to anyone.
Throughout a series of Envision Loudoun public input sessions in 2016 and 2017, citizen sentiment ran strongly and consistently in favor of strong limits on growth, providing explicit direction about where that growth should go. Citizens believe in the three-part growth management strategy represented by the Suburban Policy Area, the Transition Policy Area, and the Rural Policy Area.
Documents and presentations crafted by the Stakeholders say that public supports a balance between “residential and non-residential development,” and policies that ensure “adequate infrastructure and public facilities” as precursors to growth. The public, says the Committee, wants “quality development that is compatible with its surroundings and sensitive to environmental features,” and a Comp Plan capable of “maintaining the rural environments in the County,” and preserving “natural, cultural, and historic resources.”
But, nowhere within any of the most fundamental concepts upon which the Stakeholders seem to be relying, is that citizen sentiment being given a home.
Deep cracks in the public’s confidence with respect to how seriously their input was being taken grew in intensity over the summer of 2017.
As reported in the July 2017 issue of the Blue Ridge Leader & Loudoun Today, the draft Vision Statement presented at the Envision Loudoun June 2017 public input sessions had made no mention of the County’s long-standing Suburban, Transition, and Rural Policy Area growth management strategy.
This more generalized statement, combined with presentation materials describing 6,761 acres of land “available for development” in the TPA (30 percent of that area) had left many wondering if the Envision Loudoun process was as open and citizen-driven as intended.
A George Mason University housing study, presented by industry groups as the Holy Grail of salvation for a County in dire need of more affordable residential units, seemed to take over the whole Envision Loudoun process.
In testimony presented at the Board’s 2017 Housing Summit, a spokesperson for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association advocated for policies that would “accommodate all types of housing in all policy areas,” taking the position shared by the Stakeholder majority, that despite tens of thousands of residential units having been approved but not yet built, Loudoun still is some 20,000 residential units short.
These Envision Loudoun dynamics – consistent public demand to slow growth and maintain the County’s three-part suburban east, transitional middle, and rural west approach to growth management … pitted against Stakeholders and industry demands for ever increasing levels of growth – were in place before the Board crossed the TPA data center vote. Citizens were understandably, shocked.
A January memo to the Stakeholder’s Committee from Ricky Barker, Director of Planning & Zoning for the County, stated: “As we move forward toward the completion of the Stakeholders Committee draft General Plan and Countywide Transportation Plan, staff will present an updated Project Timeline and a Revised Plan Outline [and] for the remaining Committee meetings and associated agenda from February until the Stakeholders Committee recommends its draft Plan to the Board of Supervisors.”
All parties – from the Board of Supervisors to the County planning staff to the Stakeholders Committee – are acutely aware of the keen interest members of the public continue to have in the Envision Loudoun process.
In that way, the True North data center vote has primed the pump for a very busy planning season as the next round of public comments – in the form of spring Plan Review Workshops – gets underway.