What’s up in the west

Loudoun Coalition considers key rural issues for 2021 docket

By Laura Longley

When representatives of 55 organizations gathered virtually for the coalition’s last meeting of the year Nov. 24, the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition made clear that zoning, preservation, conservation, environmental and heritage protections, as well as data centers, traffic, and safety issues will be at the forefront in 2021.

Members took the opportunity to put forward their most pressing concerns as Valmarie Turner, Loudoun assistant county administrator, joined the meeting for the first time to meet representatives of the Piedmont Environmental Council, Loudoun Historic Village Alliance, Bluemont Citizens Association, Lincoln Community League, Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area Association, the Waterford Foundation, Save Rural Loudoun, Land Trust of Virginia, and more. Turner oversees the community development agencies, including the Departments of Building and Development, Planning and Zoning, Economic Development, and the Office of Housing.

Gem Bingol, Piedmont Environmental Council field officer for Loudoun and Clarke counties, summarized the group’s concerns. “Over the next one-and-a-half to two years, a major priority for by-right development in the rural area will be the zoning ordinance amendment to better protect prime agricultural soils and to improve the cluster subdivision provision. It will be important,” she added, “for the public to be paying attention and providing input when County staff start their outreach efforts. Other resources protections will come from the zoning ordinance rewrite.”

Among the specific issues to be addressed are the proliferation and operation of breweries and wineries with respect to impact on area residents. Of paramount importance is the safety of residents and visitors who travel backroads and thoroughfares such as Snickersville Turnpike and Routes 9, 7, and 50, where cars are routinely parked along the shoulders and customers are walking in the right-of way.

In addition, noise and dark sky pollution are increasing problems for residents’ quality of life as well as the impact on wildlife habitats and bird migration.

Communication and alignment of goals between rural communities and organizations, towns, and the County are areas that will be a focus in the coming months, particularly in light of issues in the villages of St. Louis and Philomont.

For Philomont residents, a Loudoun County Fire & Rescue Department plan that came to light in September set off sparks throughout the community. Fire & Rescue was moving forward with development plans for the village’s historic Horse Show Grounds on Snickersville Turnpike with the intention of vacating the existing firehouse adjacent to the Philomont Store.

The horse show grounds are on seven acres on Snickersville Turnpike, and had been purchased with community-raised funds in 1962. It has been Fire & Rescue’s intention to vacate the existing firehouse adjacent to the Philomont Store and replace it with an 18,500-square-foot firehouse to be paid for with $21.7 million in taxpayer dollars. The community is advocating renovation of the existing firehouse to provide the amenities for the current LCFR staff of four and eventually six when an ambulance is added. Their message in general is “one size does not fit all.” 

After residents put forth renovation of the existing firehouse as an alternative to a new one, LCFR agreed to retain a design consultant to assess the current structure and look into renovation options. However, village representative Madeline Skinner reported in the Loudoun Coalition meeting, “Fire & Rescue is rushing community input. What we want is a fair and just evaluation. We are also concerned with Fire & Rescue’s focus on accommodating oversized trucks.

“We also have learned,” added Skinner, “that an additional and highly concerning piece of the LCFR vision is to change our roads to fit the large fire trucks. The expense to widen and pave our country roads to fit the fire equipment, instead of procuring smaller, more suitable equipment at applicable stations such as Philomont or Middleburg, would be at significant costs. It does tend to make one think what the future holds for Western Loudoun per County staff ideas and actions.”

Meanwhile, 10 miles south of Philomont, a long contested by-right development project in the village of St. Louis on land previously owned by developer Mojax is reaching resolution. In October, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, led by Chair Phyllis Randall, voted to allocate $1.5 million to purchase the 16.4 acres on Snake Hill Road on which Mojax intended to construct 30 single-family homes. Mojax had already drilled 16 of the 27 wells planned for the community. Many St. Louis residents were concerned that the subdivision would decrease the water supply of the historically Black village and endanger the graveyard on the site. The County intends to place the property under permanent conservation easement for passive recreation.

While the board’s move has resolved immediate concerns, issues remain around appropriate penalties for unapproved construction activities, destruction of wetlands, and lack of coordination on well drilling permits between the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the County.

The growth and location of data centers in the west also will be on the docket in the coming year, as well as improved easement management and education.

Ongoing areas of focus include: County budget context and implications, conservation easements, rural roads and bridges, watershed management and flood plain protection, comprehensive plan update, and heritage preservation.

Coalition meetings are held the last Tuesday of the month and, for the duration of the pandemic, will continue to be held virtually. There is no meeting scheduled for December 2020.

To contact the Coalition, visit loudouncoalition.org for details, and to indicate your interests, including attending meetings as an observer.

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