Mercy, Mercy Me
By Charles Houston
Marvin Gaye’s lyrics are apt for Loudoun:
“Hey, mercy, mercy me, oh
Hey, things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand.”
Another of his hits was “What’s Going On,” in which he sang: “I’ll tell you, what’s going on.” Since Marvin’s dead, I’ll tell you what’s going.
What a miserable month. Snow, mud, icy temperatures, almost no sunshine. This has been a wretched time for our spirits; I hope March will be restorative.
Our lives have been changed for the worse. I particularly hope mask wearing is not the new normality. On a positive note, we have vaccines and our case fatality rate is only 1.8 percent. That betters all but one European country. Their misery is cold comfort, though.
February bleakness suits conspiracy theories about COVID’s origin. Was it purely zoonotic (i.e., transmitted from animals to humans) or was it genetically engineered in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been involved with coronaviruses for many years? Suspiciously, most western nations have been hit hard, and China benefits from a weakened west.
It’s budget time and Supervisors are hunkered down with numbers. I always look askance at government spending and there are some easy targets: Washington, to a lesser degree Richmond and to an extreme degree, our profligate school system.
Personal belt-tightening isn’t pleasant. We’ve cut back, selling my sports car to replenish savings. Painful. Why can’t governments tighten their belts?
Several years ago, I bemoaned the lack of a true leader for western Loudoun’s conservation community. No one has risen to fill that void, and to me there seems to be less energy. (Though miserable February and miserable COVID may have jaundiced that personal view.) Worse, something major is going on: ZOR – the new zoning ordinance rewrite. The new ordinance will govern what every part of Loudoun will become. Tired of huge data centers? Seas of subdivisions bother you? Nightmarish traffic? Missing the scenic pastoral views? Whatever your issue, the new zoning ordinance will be important to you.
One old-line conservation group, the Loudoun Preservation and Conservation Coalition, may be looking for leadership when its long-time and stalwart leader steps down. I hope Al van Huyck will remain engaged in one capacity or other. I also hope the Coalition’s executive committee considers outsiders as candidates to fill Al’s very large shoes. Three superb leaders come to my mind, though I won’t mention names.
Everyone in Loudoun should thank Chuck Kuhn. His philanthropy has saved thousands of acres and his reported purchase of White’s Ferry is great news. Loudoun’s leading appraiser reports strong activity in conservation easements. That’s super.
The new Comprehensive Plan says that “Mountainsides…are a distinctive feature of the County’s scenic beauty” and calls them “scenic viewsheds” that frame our countryside. Despite those affirmations, mountainsides now face an existential threat, illuminated by a preliminary inquiry for building a camp on the slopes. What could happen? Look at the FEMA site south of Bluemont. It expanded several years ago, creating an obscene scar on the Blue Ridge. Subdivisions would be just as bad, and a splatter of wineries and breweries on the mountains would be dreadful.
I’ve heard County planners and zoning stakeholders claim that the mountainsides are protected by the Mountainside Development Overlay District (MDOD) within the Zoning Ordinance. They are flat wrong and here’s why: The basic premise of the MDOD is “to regulate land use on the mountainsides” and to avoid “substantial damage.” Thus, development is hunky-dory if it’s regulated, and damage is swell as long as it’s not substantial. Bah! Any use that’s permitted in western Loudoun is permitted on the slopes by right (meaning with no oversight by key county bodies.) It also permits subdivisions. Horror! Clearing for roads and structures is permitted, and in most cases another acre or more can also be cleared. So, the MDOD contemplates that the mountains can be developed. Bad! Bad! Bad!
The MDOD’s basic premise needs to be flipped 180 degrees. Instead of “regulating” development, its purpose should be to restrict development and to preserve the slopes and their tree cover. Only single-family housing should be allowed, with a density of perhaps 40 acres per house. All structures should be required to blend in with their surroundings. Without these changes, development on the mountainsides is a bomb waiting to explode.
The Zoning Ordinance Rewrite is proceeding, with plentiful monographs from consultants. Some have been on-target, while others appear to be mainly academic musings. The road ahead is long and we face a fundamental problem: The zoning code will assuredly focus on “managing growth.” Instead, I’d love to see it emphasizing the goal of stopping growth, or even making people leave. Chuckle, chuckle. At least the new ordinance should abandon the existing “by right” permissiveness, and require large projects to get specific approval.
It would be a sea-change for any planning staff to plan on keeping the status quo, though.
Public outreach sessions are upcoming. Please participate. Find out what’s being proposed by going to https://www.loudoun.gov/5274/Zoning-Ordinance-Rewrite. Read carefully, think about unintended consequences and be cynical.
The Zoning Ordinance Committee’s central duty is providing input to Staff during the zoning rewrite. To me, that implies that Staff has a reciprocal duty to give some importance to comments from ZOC. However, a senior staffer once said that comments from ZOC would be given the same importance as those from others. I took that as minimizing ZOC’s role.
Instead, Staff and ZOC should work collaboratively, with ZOC giving its thoughts to Staff earlier in the process as well as reviewing drafts of text. Ultimately, though, Staff writes the final document. If it disagrees with something, ZOC may comment to the Planning Commission (to which ZOC reports).
ZOC itself has not yet settled into a good working order.
The forecast for early March is encouraging. May our days be sunny. And myself, less grouchy.
Charles Houston developed office buildings for an Atlanta-based firm. He lives in Paeonian Springs.