Greater Greater Washington

Can Loudoun grow while protecting its rural areas?

For years, Loudoun County was one of the nation's fastest growing counties and an instructive example of the downsides of sprawl. Meanwhile, it's a nationally recognized center for horse breeding and for its wineries. How can the county manage ongoing growth without losing its rural areas?


The Loudoun County courthouse in Leesburg. Photo by lokeswari on Flickr.

Running north-south from Point of Rocks to Aldie, US 15 bisects the county into developed and rural halves. Loudoun's eastern half is a rapidly developing area that made it the nation's wealthiest county and one of its fastest growing counties.

This area contains Dulles Airport, a large number of technology businesses, and increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity. Soon, Metro's Silver Line will extend to Loudoun County, taking workers to job centers like Reston and Tysons Corner.


New developments line Loudoun County Parkway in 2007. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

In Loudoun's western half, small towns and villages like Purcellville and Waterford dot the landscape among miles of rolling countryside. However, extreme development pressures put this land essential to the agricultural economy at risk.

How can the county continue to grow in a more sustainable manner and reverse existing planning mistakes? This two-part series will look at what Loudoun General Plan recommends for the county's Suburban Policy Area, or SPA, in the east and the Rural Policy Area, or RPA, in the west.

Both halves of Loudoun face unique challenges and risks, but they must play to their strengths. Each half has a specific role to play in the county, but they can complement one another. Despite tension between the two areas, Loudoun's success stems from being able to successfully plan and manage both suburban and rural places.

Where growth is happening


Brambleton, one of many new planned communities in Loudoun County's eastern half. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

The Suburban Policy Area (PDF) is predicted to absorb seventy five percent of all of Loudoun's growth in the near future. By 2020, the SPA will have a population density of about 2200 people per square mile, which is close to Fairfax's current county-wide density of around 2300 people per square mile.

Sprawl has blurred many of the borders between Loudoun neighborhoods. Shopping centers blend together and there's a distinct lack of a center in many of the communities. Recognizing this, the SPA plan recommends creating four distinct "towns" in the county's eastern half: Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac and Dulles.

The towns would be compact and have a mix of uses, allowing them to have distinct centers and a strong sense of community identity. Schools and community centers would go in places where they can be easily reached by foot or bicycle. A greenbelt would wrap around each town, providing physical separation between communities and creating a network of open space and trails. The county could use Transfers of Development Rights, or TDRs, to allow greater density at other sites to preserve the open spaces.

For decades, Loudoun has planned only for cars while ignoring all other transportation modes. It will be relatively easy to add "complete streets" to new developments, but it will take a lot of work to make current roads safer and more attractive for walking and biking, especially ones like Route 7 that are over 100 feet wide and have grade-separated interchanges.

Where is the transit?


Loudoun Station, a TOD being built next to a future Silver Line station. Photo from Comstock.

These are all good ideas, but in order to make them happen, Loudoun will have to find a way to deal with both existing and future traffic congestion. This must include more comprehensive intra-county transit.

The county's general plan devotes a lot of space to widening roads and adding interchanges. However, there's hardly any mention of any sort of public transportation, outside of vague references to future Silver Line stations and the desire to build transit-oriented developments around them.

Right now, Loudoun County Transit runs commuter buses from park and ride lots in the county to downtown DC or Metro stations elsewhere in Northern Virginia. Virginia Regional Transit operates shuttles between neighborhoods and shopping centers, but only every forty-five minutes. Transfers between lines are few and far between.

Now that the county is committed to building the Silver Line, it must create a true transit network that not only connects communities to Metro but to each other. This would relieve congestion on many of Loudoun's roads and head off the desire to continually widen arterial roads. Loudoun needs transit sooner rather than later to handle what's already here and for future infill development.

Make it denser and give Loudoun an identity

Many people would say that what Loudoun needs to do is stop growing. That wouldn't help the county improve its communities or its traffic.

The county is urbanizing rapidly and must be able to pay for the costs of new services that more citizens require. Loudoun already has higher property taxes than Fairfax or Arlington, and the improvements to the transportation network will need to rely on carefully planned growth to maximize the county's investment. In order for Loudoun to hold on to its agricultural heritage, it must ensure that its developed areas are planned with excellence.

In part two, we'll talk about the Rural Policy Area.

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Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Falls Church.  

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TDR is tricky but definitely an interesting idea. Open space programs are good but you have to be careful that you aren't aiding sprawl by just buying up pockets of land between housing developments. That's basically how it turned out where I grew up. I would say they followed the word but not the spirit of the land use regulations meant to preserve fragile ecosystems/farmland.

by Alan B. on May 13, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

Open space programs are good but you have to be careful that you aren't aiding sprawl by just buying up pockets of land between housing developments.

Good point, but that's kind of how it's supposed to work. Rock Creek Park is an example in DC of a greenbelt. I also talk more about TDR's in the next article which looks at how other counties have handled TDR's to preserve agricultural land rather than having the effect you talk about which is similar to what I saw growing up.

by Canaan on May 13, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

Fairfax County DOT regularly speaks very highly of Loudoun County Transit and its efforts to bring Loudoun residents to Tysons and the West Falls Church rail station.

by tmt on May 13, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

Could the county declare western Loudoun an ag preserve similar to MoCo's? That seems to have worked at preserving MoCo's rural areas and concentrating development near existing infrastructure.

by Falls Church on May 13, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

FC,

That's what part two will be about. In short: the county has basically decided that but at present it's not as formal or structured as MoCo's program.

by Canaan on May 13, 2013 4:46 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church: Loudoun tried simply prohibiting additional development several years ago, and the VA Supreme Court ruled that ordinance unconstitutional. Counties have the power to regulate development, not prohibit it.

I have never read the opinion, I suppose it might be possible to prohibit additional development in the west while allowing it in the east, but my guess is the whole point of the SPA v. RPA was to limit development to the maximum extent allowable by law in the western part of the county.

by JW on May 13, 2013 4:48 pm • linkreport

Yes, I mean it is definitely how it's supposed to work to an extent. To my mind selling a few acres of wetlands that probably couldn't be build on anyway for open space and building sprawling tract developments (single family homes on an acre of land) all around and putting in new roads on what was previously greenfield has questionable preservation value. Open space programs should target large significant tracts and provide nearby areas with compact development in my opinion.

by Alan B. on May 13, 2013 5:02 pm • linkreport

I should clarify that I'm not familiar with Loudoun County ( have been to Dulles twice though) so I am in no position to comment on how things function there at all.

by Alan B. on May 13, 2013 5:10 pm • linkreport

Preserving open farmland sounds nice to a city dweller, but it is unfair to the farmers looking to sell closer-in property to developers. How does the county propose to compensate these people for the loss of value?

by goldfish on May 14, 2013 8:44 am • linkreport

I grew up in a suburban rural area. Just because people live in the city doesn't mean I don't know about farmland. For TDR you pay the farmer a fee for keeping the property as farmland in exchange for developers getting the right to add additional density somewhere like a town center. Open space preservation involves the government usually or a nonprofit buying the land outright. That can be difficult if they wait until land values go up a lot. Sometimes owners are just happy to see that their land remains open space and will turn it over to government when they retire.

by Alan B. on May 14, 2013 9:09 am • linkreport

It's all about zoning. Loudoun is making a big mistake by allowing massive (but low-quality) McMansion developments. They will regret that later when they run out of space and need more density. Those McMansion owners will fight future density tooth and nail. The trick is that they need to zone for dense developments, especially around the new metro stations. And they can simply keep the zoning west of US-15 rural.

by Jasper on May 14, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

@Alan,

As someone who grew up on a dairy farm in rural PA, I can assure you growing up in the suburbs doesn't teach you anything about farming, farmland, or what a farmer wants.

I know a couple farmers in Western Loudoun and in northern Montgomery County, they and their remaining farmer friends are just waiting for the payday so that they can sell their unprofitable farms and give up the 4:00am to 7:00pm, 7 day a week, 52 week a year racket they've been in their entire lives, and their parents before them. There is a real romantisized view of farming, for the people who don't farm. For those who do, the vast majority think that view is ridiculous.

The real issue with local Counties like Loudoun and Montgomery who "try" to preserve farmland by removing options from the landowners making it difficult for them to develop is, you can't charge some farmer market price for property taxes his entire life, then expect him to "turn it over" or give up on the idea of cashing in and developing the property for a minor tax break and a pat on the back. It is unfair and insulting.

Sure, a couple in the area might prefer to take a minor tax break and turn it over (or portions of it) to the County in their will, or allocate some of it for preservation purposes, but considering most of these lifelong hardworking individuals have never made over 30-40K a year, while the property taxes bled them dry, and haven't taken more than a 3 day vacation in their lives, I can assure you the vast majority are lining up to take the $75,000-100,000 dollar an acre payday, leaving my friend with his 290 acre farm in Western Loudoun with ~29 million in the bank, and a multigenerational life of opportunity for him, his kids, his grand kids and beyond.

by Farmer Pete on May 14, 2013 9:32 am • linkreport

Loudoun tried simply prohibiting additional development several years ago, and the VA Supreme Court ruled that ordinance unconstitutional.

I'm not familiar with that ruling but I'd guess that it wouldn't prohibit limiting the minimum size of a housing lot which is how MoCo's ag reserve works. In the reserve, you can only have one house per 25 acres which in principle is not that different than saying you can only have one house per 1/4 acre in suburbia, or having a maximum FAR in an urban area.

by Falls Church on May 14, 2013 9:46 am • linkreport

Farmer Pete, I'm not actually talking about what farmers want at all. I'm talking about what the greater community wants. The county can absolutely keep land in farming through zoning for example. Obviously, some farmers will be able to cash out if they are located in grow areas. Others won't. The policies mentioned are ways to support farmers who do want to keep farming without being overwhelmed by the cost. I don't think simply being a farmer entitles you to some payday to the detriment to good planning. A lot of places do have other programs such as tax breaks for farmers etc so that would definitely be another thing to pursue if it's not already being done.

by Alan B. on May 14, 2013 9:59 am • linkreport

And I think it's just as ridiculous to argue that anyone is entitled to sell off farmland to developers as it is to argue that people should be able to go into their local rainforest for logging.

by Alan B. on May 14, 2013 10:01 am • linkreport

Being a "farmer" doesn't entitle anyone to anything. Being a land owner does.

Mont Co and Loudoun have tried and tried the past 25 years to prohibit farmers and large land owners from selling or developing their land, and have met with resounding failure every time.

by Farmer Pete on May 14, 2013 10:03 am • linkreport

Preserving open farmland sounds nice to a city dweller, but it is unfair to the farmers looking to sell closer-in property to developers.

That's coming up in the second article. Other counties have different approaches to help compensate land owners for the value of the land while keeping it open for its current or potential agricultural use.

by Canaan on May 14, 2013 10:03 am • linkreport

The basic principle that government can zone land for the wellbing of the community has been unheld by the Supreme Court for a century. Of course farmers can sell to other farmers, but there is not an inherent right to develop your land however you see fit without a greater consensus.

by Alan B. on May 14, 2013 10:36 am • linkreport

I really have a tough time following the argument that farmland needs to remain farmland even though no one actually wants to, you know, run a farm on such land.

If farmland is the best use for certain land, you shouldn't need to pass laws preventing other uses.

by Potowmack on May 14, 2013 11:36 am • linkreport

If farmland is the best use for certain land, you shouldn't need to pass laws preventing other uses.

You do if the disbenefits of turning that land into something else are not priced and you want to avoid those disbenefits. That is the case here.

Do we open up all of our parkland to be sold to the highest bidder?

by MLD on May 14, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

The point is that farmland is inherently worth preserving so you know we have a place to grow food. Farmers shouldnt be screwed by the system though so there are various ways to compensate them for the value of the land without requiring them to sell up to developers and leave.

It's not a hard argument to follow, so you know maybe just try sounding out the individual words and you'll make it.

by Alan B. on May 14, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

potowmack

ive seen arguments for farmland preservation, aside from ones focused on its positive externalities to non-farmers. They essentially say that farming and suburban residences tend to conflict - new residents will complain about nuisance externalities of farming, and make it more difficult. Additionally there are economies of scale to businesses that serve forms. Ergo, when the first farmer sells, it becomes more difficult for the remaining farmers to stay in business, and so forth.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2013 11:49 am • linkreport

The Montgomery County Ag preserve is a failure, because the development that would have gone there has instead been channeled to northern Virgina. The suburban sprawl extends past Leesburg.

For better or worse, the new silver line will cause a dense urban spine from DC into Loudoun county, with gradient of new construction extending north and south from this line. Establishing an Ag preserve, to preventing nearby development in the western half of Loudoun county, will have similar consequences as what is happen in Leesburg. Such a preserve sounds good now, but will lead to far worse problems in the long run.

@MLD: Do we open up all of our parkland to be sold to the highest bidder?

This is not about parkland.

by goldfish on May 14, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

This is not about parkland.

What's the difference? It's all open space preservation. The only difference is the government got to one set of land earlier so now that's "normal" but this is "interference!"

by MLD on May 14, 2013 11:55 am • linkreport

You do if the disbenefits of turning that land into something else are not priced and you want to avoid those disbenefits. That is the case here.

The desire to preserve farms here seems to be based on romantic notions of farming that exist mostly only in the minds of city slickers. If no one wants to actually farm on certain land, what's the point of passing laws to prevent people from building homes there?

Do we open up all of our parkland to be sold to the highest bidder?

Private and publicly owned lands are very different beasts. If you want to prevent two private parties from changing the use of certain land, you need a better reason than nostalgia.

And, yes, I can envision a number of circumstances where parkland should be sold to build housing. A certain use of land should not be set in stone if that use is no longer useful or logical. But, if the community here wants to preserve this green space, they should put their money where their mouth is and use tax dollars to buy this farmland and turn it into a state or county park.

by Potowmack on May 14, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

Alan B. The point is that farmland is inherently worth preserving so you know we have a place to grow food.

That is what the midwest is for. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, etc. have hundreds of thousands of square miles of open land, used to grow food. No way to compete with that.

Rather, local ag preserves sited near a large city is for city people to feel good about their land use, so they can buy "local produce." It is vanity.

by goldfish on May 14, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

What's the difference? It's all open space preservation.

the difference is that parkland is publicly owned and maintained. By restricting use, the ag preserve is a zoning taking on private property.

by goldfish on May 14, 2013 11:58 am • linkreport

For better or worse, the new silver line will cause a dense urban spine from DC into Loudoun county, with gradient of new construction extending north and south from this line.

Except Loudoun's metro stations will be firmly in the SPA. And there is a lot of room in the SPA still. Loudoun is a very large county geographically. It's over 100 Sq. miles bigger than fairfax county.

Does this mean that if Loudoun were to be as strict as MoCo we'd see more development in West Virginia? Yes, but then you also help create phsyical distinction between communites and since the newer developments are denser than what they would be otherwise it is easier for local governments to provide county services and transit.

And overall, it depends on the goals of the county. Loudoun may want more development than montgomery county and that's fine. But if they want to work to solve some of the problems that come with being a big county then they have to make decisions about their land-use.

There is also a third transition zone that I didn't talk about mainly because its very specific to the areas in the zone and much more an actual zoning document than the rest of the plan.

by Canaan on May 14, 2013 11:59 am • linkreport

The point is that farmland is inherently worth preserving so you know we have a place to grow food.

According to the USDA, US agricultural output is up 170% since 1948. So any worries that we're running out of places to grow food seem unfounded.

Should we limit the sale of industrial land, too? Because I imagine a significant percentage of industrial property has been turned to other uses in the past few decades.

The reason so many farmers are looking to sell their land is that the farmland isn't in short supply, so other uses for the land have a higher economic value.

by Potowmack on May 14, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

It's not about running out of space for agriculture in the country, it's the importance of mainting the integrity of local agricultural lands. It be virtually impossible to reassemble 10 acres of farmland once its subdivided. There is also no need to build on that land. Loudoun County is 10 times the size of DC with half the population and bigger than fairfax with a 1/3 the population. You could easily focus all new development within say 5 miles of the silver line, including whatever farmland is located in the zone and in a few town centers and preserve tens of thousands of acres. Anyway if people move to WV that would be fine, they can always take the MARC train into DC.

by Alan B. on May 14, 2013 1:08 pm • linkreport

" If no one wants to actually farm on certain land, what's the point of passing laws to prevent people from building homes there?"

My understanding is that in many places farmers do want to keep farming, and want to prevent a few farmers selling and new development making farming more difficult. I do not know if thats the case in Western Loudoun. I do know there has been opposition in western Loudoun to further development, but I dont know if thats completely from the non-farmers.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2013 1:13 pm • linkreport

There is also no need to build on that land.

How much "need" there is, is measured by people with cash willing to buy. A lot, apparently, because otherwise there would be no "need" to establish a preserve.

The irony is that the preserve will compromise the integrity of other farmland, further out. Take a look here, and compare the density around Poolesville to that around Leesburg. If there was not Montgomery County ag preserve, a lot of the development near Leesburg probably would not have occured, and instead would be closer in, near Darnstown.

by goldfish on May 14, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

"For better or worse, the new silver line will cause a dense urban spine from DC into Loudoun county, with gradient of new construction extending north and south from this line. Establishing an Ag preserve, to preventing nearby development in the western half of Loudoun county, will have similar consequences as what is happen in Leesburg. Such a preserve sounds good now, but will lead to far worse problems in the long run"

There is already significant employment in that spine. Whether the silver line will do more to bring employment out there, or more to concentrate the employment growth close to the metro stations, is not possible to say at this point.

Whether the western LoCo restrictions will spread residential development to WVa is arguable. Thats not only a pretty significant distance, but it also involves some mountain passed that become difficult driving in the winter. And WVa has disadvantages that Frederick County Md does not. Surely some additional development will head to WVa, but the net net impact on sprawl is not clear.

BTW, you seem to think that the limits on development in Wesern LoCo are new. IIUC they are not but have been in places for quite a few years. Presumably the next post on this will address that.

This post was supposed to be about EASTERN LoCo. For some reason that doesnt seem to grab folks.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

"According to the USDA, US agricultural output is up 170% since 1948. So any worries that we're running out of places to grow food seem unfounded."

A. Thats not necessarily a useful statistic, since what matters is the change in recent years, vs global demand B. Nonetheless I do not think the total supply of ag land issue is whats key here - mostly the market will deal with that correctly, and metro fringe land is a modest percent of the total C. What does matter, in my view, is the desire to have ag land close to pop centers. So that people have a better understanding of where food comes from - and to enable production of especially produce in places where there can be more farmer consumer interaction, encouraging more sustainable practices. D and of course, because of the possibility that farming and housing do not mix well.

"Should we limit the sale of industrial land, too? Because I imagine a significant percentage of industrial property has been turned to other uses in the past few decades."

some jurisdictions do protect industrial land - to preserve jobs, and also because of issues mixing residential and industrial.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2013 1:23 pm • linkreport

goldfish,

That's the thing. The greenbelts can encourage development elsewhere but then you have space between communities. It is an anti-sprawl measure. It's how many communities developed originally and allows the rural and natural transects to remain.

Of course you have political realities (Montgomery county can't tell Loudoun what to do/not do). But this is about managing growth/ not preventing it. And this is only one tool, you have to do a whole bunch of other stuff to take on other effects (like mixing uses, having a connected street grid, transit, etc.).

by drumz on May 14, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

@drumz: But this is about managing growth

This is growth MISmanagement. Why are people pushing for a Potomac bridge? because of all the development near Leesburg. Why is there all that fuss over the toll increases on the DTR? Because of all of the drivers coming from way up on rte. 7. Smart growth is supposed to provide dense neighborhoods near transit; instead we get a subway extending 30 miles out. This is sprawl, and the ag preserve is a major contributor to this.

by goldfish on May 14, 2013 1:41 pm • linkreport

So since Loudoun has sprawl in some areas we should just declare the whole county open season on development?

I think there were plenty of mistakes made and I think many also recognize that but you've still got to do something to work with what's left. It's not as if the silver line is going through open land. It's going right through the heart of one of the biggest CBD's in the nation? Would it have been better for all the space in Tyson's to have been located in DC, Arlington, or Bethesda? Probably but it's there now anyway.If you're going to have a city then at least plan it well.

by drumz on May 14, 2013 1:45 pm • linkreport

"This is growth MISmanagement. Why are people pushing for a Potomac bridge?"

most arent.

"because of all the development near Leesburg."

most of the development in LoCo is east of leesburg, and it has moved steadily out from Fairfax. It isnt really effected much by the MoCo ag preserve.

"Why is there all that fuss over the toll increases on the DTR?"

because people dont want to pay more money.

"Because of all of the drivers coming from way up on rte. 7."

Hmm? IIUC most people who live along rte 7 take rte 7.

"smart growth is supposed to provide dense neighborhoods near transit; instead we get a subway extending 30 miles out. This is sprawl,"

no, its a subway line. Whether it creates sprawl or not is another question. Certainly LoCo was developing rapidly before the silver line phase 2 was approved. And it runs in parts of LoCo that are already heavily developed. Will the Silver line mean more development in LoCo that would otherwise go elsewhere in the region? Probably. Will it mean more of the folks from LoCo commuting to tysons will take transit rather than drive, making it easier to urbanize Tysons - almost certainly. Which impact is more important is a judgement. The political process in FFX and LoCo have spoken.

" and the ag preserve is a major contributor to this."

The MoCo ag preserve is a contributor to the Silver Line? What?

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2013 1:49 pm • linkreport

It's not about running out of space for agriculture in the country, it's the importance of mainting the integrity of local agricultural lands.

To what end?

Agricultural land is a means to an end: that is, producing food. But the loss of relatively few acres in Loudoun is just a drop in the bucket for Virginia agriculture, never mind the nation as a whole. If you drive about an hour west into the Shenandoah, you'll find no lack of thriving agriculture in Virginia.

There is also no need to build on that land.

Well, if you're right and there is no demand for housing at the location in question, then no one will end up building there and this whole issue will be moot. But I think the fact that we're talking about this strongly suggests there may be a need to build on that land to meet the demands of the real estate market in question..

You could easily focus all new development within say 5
miles of the silver line, including whatever farmland is located in the zone and in a few town centers and preserve tens of thousands of acres.

If that's the type of housing people want, then that's the type of housing that will be built. But, if people want more suburban housing on re-developed farmland, what's the problem? No one's forcing you to live there is you prefer more dense housing. Dense, urban living is not for everyone and there's no real reason Loudoun County should be as dense as other parts of the region.

by Potowmack on May 14, 2013 1:49 pm • linkreport

@drumz: If you're going to have a city then at least plan it well.

This is not a city!

by goldfish on May 14, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

"This is not a city"

You can call Tysons a banana if you prefer. It is a major concentration of employment, a major center of life in NoVa, and it does need good planning to continue to function, and to grow (and FFX has no intention of letting it cease to grow)

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

I was referring to Tyson's Corner, which is definitely a city even if it is unincorporated.

But in any case, Loudoun is made up of many towns. Open Space preservation and ag reserve programs help keep those towns distinct and there is a clear delineation between "town" and "country".

by drumz on May 14, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

@goldfish: The Montgomery County Ag preserve is a failure, because the development that would have gone there has instead been channeled to northern Virgina. The suburban sprawl extends past Leesburg.

If the purpose of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve (not preserve) had been to prevent sprawl along the Potomac west of DC, then yes, the Montgomery County Ag Reserve would be a failure.

But, in reality, the purpose of the Montgomery County Ag Reserve was to maintain agricultural land and rural open space in Montgomery County. Which it has been (by and large) successful at, so far.

by Miriam on May 14, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

Agricultural land is a means to an end: that is, producing food. But the loss of relatively few acres in Loudoun is just a drop in the bucket for Virginia agriculture

I'd agree that limiting housing density to one house per 25 acres (which is what creating an ag reserve essentially means) has nothing to do with producing food. There is no rule that says folks who purchase these 25 acre lots have to farm and in fact, many folks with 25 acre plots in the ag reserve are just rich people who want large estates. They are more likely to be biotech execs than farmers.

The reason you limit density is to preserve the rural character of an area. Many people living in the rural areas of Loudoun and in the suburban areas of Loudoun like western Loudoun's rural character -- having a place like that provides a public benefit to the people of Loudoun.

So, the residents of Loudoun (and I do think it should be a local decision) need to weigh the benefits of preserving western Loudoun's rural character with the costs of compensating rural landowners for decreasing allowable densities (from whatever it is now to 1 house per 25 acres).

Whether it makes sense to limit densities really comes down to how much value residents attach to having a rural place nearby -- it's really a matter of personal preference and values. I know residents of Great Falls fight tooth-and-nail to preserve the rural character of their area because they value it very highly. Whether Loudoun shares similar values is to be seen.

by Falls Church on May 14, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

@drumz: But in any case, Loudoun is made up of many towns. Open Space preservation and ag reserve programs help keep those towns distinct and there is a clear delineation between "town" and "country".

Interesting how you can dress up suburban sprawl with smart-growthy language and make it sound good. But that does not change the facts, that this is low density development with lots of roads and open land in between. The open land means increases the distances and insures that everybody drives -- an inefficient use of space. Montgomery County has the same kind of development -- town centers with open space between -- that is universally reviled, leading to long walking distances and high speed auto travel with killed students while walking to school.

Don't let the nice copy fool you, this is the same deal.

by goldfish on May 14, 2013 10:40 pm • linkreport

Well of course green belts aren't the only way. You then need a form based code and mixed uses and careful siting of civic amenities. Rock creek park is a good example of a green belt but its success also come from the fact that it has well planned neighborhoods on either side of it.

But you also have the challenge of Loudoun at present which has a lot of sprawl and you need to look at what can be retrofitted.

Remember this is all talking about how Loudoun should be not how it currently is.

by drumz on May 14, 2013 11:23 pm • linkreport

That said, it is hard and a lot of counties fail to set out to do. But it's hard to see an alternative that is able to balance these issues.

by drumz on May 14, 2013 11:34 pm • linkreport

Interesting how you can dress up suburban sprawl with smart-growthy language and make it sound good. But that does not change the facts, that this is low density development with lots of roads and open land in between.

So what is your proposal? No ag preservation? No greenbelts? Does this lead to LESS sprawl than having them? I think the evidence shows that not preserving these spaces leads to more sprawl, in which case your concern about "language" is just highlighting a supposed contradiction for no other reason than to get a rise out of people.

by MLD on May 15, 2013 9:02 am • linkreport

"But that does not change the facts, that this is low density development with lots of roads and open land in between"

Isnt that what traditional villages are? People live in relatively compact centers, which are walkable, and which can be relatively well served by transit, and which are suitable for biking (internally, and at least to the closer other villages) and they are given definition by rural land in between.

Given that not everyone wants high density living, but lots of folks dont want classic "sprawl" this sounds like a good development form.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 15, 2013 9:13 am • linkreport

MLD: I think the evidence shows that not preserving these spaces leads to more sprawl

Nonsense. Development patterns show that growth is surrounding and overtaking the Montgomery County ag reserve. There is a lot of pressure in Poolesville, the one island within the reserve. If the reserve wasn't there, this development would have occurred in a more orderly fashion closer to the DC core.

This sort of piecemeal development, with islands surrounded by open space, loosely connected by fat arterials, does not lead to a city. (That is why Tyson's Corner is such a disaster.) A city includes a dense street grid with parks sprinkled around, like what L'Enfant designed, or the Manhattan Commissioners' Plan of 1811. There are a lot of US cities with grids, but apparently we have forgotten how to do this.

As a city grows, it is better to extend the grid in the outskirts, with a few parks here and there, but no open space. The parks should be the islands, not the street grid.

by goldfish on May 15, 2013 9:20 am • linkreport

A lot of these arguments aren't logical. A good chunk of Loudoun is over 50 miles from DC and a good way from Tysons. There is no reason to assume that development that could happen there if uncontrolled can't easily be accomodated closer in. I do think there is a lot of value in preserving agricultural lands intact. That isn't to say they need to continuously farmed but there is value in maintaining the potential use which dissappears if you convert it to sprawly housing tracts. Ag and open space preservation is hard to get right though. You run the risk of just accomodating sprawl if you only hand pick pockets here and there to preserve instead of having a large area. And farms lose a lot of the benefits of scale when they end up smaller and farther apart.

by Alan B. on May 15, 2013 9:31 am • linkreport

Isnt that what traditional villages are? People live in relatively compact centers, which are walkable and which can be relatively well served by transit, and which are suitable for biking

Village grew to serve the commerce and assembly needs of farmers -- to buy supplies, go to church. They are widely separated, about a one day journey apart, and offered just about everything you might need. Out west there still are such places, and the towns are substantial, 2000-3000 people, with a lot of shops, 2-3 big-box stores, restaurants, bars, amusement, theaters, post office, library, legal services, courthouse, churches, etc. My parents live in such a place, and the next nearest big town is a two-hour drive, far enough that most people make the journey less than once a month.

But this development pattern is not that. It is loose suburban sprawl, with centers about 10-20 minutes apart. Because they are close, they are not self-contained. So calling them "villages" is a kind of self-deception as the development pattern really is not any different than what has been happening in suburbia for a generation.

by goldfish on May 15, 2013 9:35 am • linkreport

"So calling them "villages" is a kind of self-deception as the development pattern really is not any different than what has been happening in suburbia for a generation."

I dont really care what you call them, if they can provide more of the walkability even exurbanites want, and avoid other costs of sprawl. Im not sure what you mean by whats been happening - are you referring to PUDs like are found in LoCo that have lots of sidewalks and trails but arent always well defined on the edges ? Are you talking about more traditional postwar suburban development patterns? Are you talking about Neo trad developments like Kentlands?

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 15, 2013 9:39 am • linkreport

If the reserve wasn't there, this development would have occurred in a more orderly fashion closer to the DC core.
What do you mean, closer? Like Silver Spring, closer or somewhere else? Because that's not how it works. Without the ag reserve you could argue that there wouldn't be a lot of pressure in Poolesville but only because its so easy to build everywhere else (leading to, more sprawl). And Montgomery County at least has the advantage of sharing a border with DC as well.

I think your concern is with bad (or a lack of) planning, not with how jurisdictions deal with open space.

by drumz on May 15, 2013 9:40 am • linkreport

"This sort of piecemeal development, with islands surrounded by open space, loosely connected by fat arterials, does not lead to a city. (That is why Tyson's Corner is such a disaster.) "

Tysons is not surrounded by open space. Its a high density center, surrounded by suburban areas. The low density areas that surround Tysons are not that much less dense than the villages themselves would be. That is, indeed, one of the key issues. If you DON'T do ag preserve, you get something more like Tysons.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 15, 2013 9:45 am • linkreport

Tysons is not surrounded by open space.

Tysons was surrounded by open space. Look where it lead to.

by goldfish on May 15, 2013 9:51 am • linkreport

I think there is more agreement in this thread than it appears. Most people can probably concede that a lot of previous open space / ag preservation efforts have gone very wrong, often due to caving to developers. But I think that's why it's so important for the County to sit down and set down a very concise vision so you don't get the piecemeal, somewhat counterproductive efforts seen elsewhere. Portland and the whole urban growth boundary is often cited as a positive example, but I'm not familiar enough with the area myself.

by Alan B. on May 15, 2013 9:54 am • linkreport

Tysons was surrounded by open space. Look where it lead to.

That's not quite true, Tyson's was the open space between the more established centers in Vienna and McLean.

by drumz on May 15, 2013 9:56 am • linkreport

"Tysons is not surrounded by open space.
Tysons was surrounded by open space. Look where it lead to."

aside from the fact that, as drumz says, there was suburban development all around when the mall was first built - in Mclean, in Vienna, in Falls Church and in Pimmit Hills - much of the subsequent growth that happened in NW Fairfax on undeveloped land WOULDN'T have had ag protection been in place. It was NOT in place.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 15, 2013 9:59 am • linkreport

@Drumz & @AWitC: You've missed the point.

Tysons was built in commerce pods connected by ever-widening arterials and no supporting street grid. As these pods grew to impingement, this leads to pedestrian hell. Ag reserves will fall away under the relentless development pressure -- there were farms on Manhattan at one time -- and then what is left is Tyson's. Even if they do not, because the settlements are widely spaced and not self contained, the walking environment is no better than your average suburban strip-mall, the difference being that the parking is in the rear compared to the front.

The ag reserves cause the development to be more spread out. Their "value" is to provide more space without the residents having to pay for it. They are unfair to the farm landowners and lead to inefficient land use.

by goldfish on May 15, 2013 10:17 am • linkreport

"Tysons was built in commerce pods connected by ever-widening arterials and no supporting street grid."

"Recognizing this, the SPA plan recommends creating four distinct "towns" in the county's eastern half: Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac and Dulles"

Goldfish - I think you are really confused about the scale here. Ashburn is bigger than the whole of Tysons - its not equivalent to a single "pod" in Tysons.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 15, 2013 10:25 am • linkreport

Tysons was built in commerce pods connected by ever-widening arterials and no supporting street grid.

Planning and building a street grid (which is what's being done right now in tyson's) is the only way to build a street grid. Planning parks, open space, ag reserves, won't provide a street grid nor are they meant too.

by drumz on May 15, 2013 10:27 am • linkreport

"Recognizing this, the SPA plan recommends creating four distinct "towns" in the county's eastern half: Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac and Dulles"

No different, really, from Darnestown, Gaithersburg, Derwood, Rockville, Germantown, etc -- large blotches of loose development, with strip mall "villages" and cul-de-sac housing connected by 8-lane arterials.

by goldfish on May 15, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

Ah yes Loudoun and Manhattan, what an apt comparison. This is straight up exurbia we are talking about in the western part. More like Orange County, NY or the edge of Lancaster.

by Alan B. on May 15, 2013 10:36 am • linkreport

@Alan B: Manhattan has a grid, the best way to arrange development. LC has missed that lesson.

by goldfish on May 15, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

"No different, really, from Darnestown, Gaithersburg, Derwood, Rockville, Germantown, etc -- large blotches of loose development, with strip mall "villages" and cul-de-sac housing connected by 8-lane arterials."

I thought you were discussing Tysons? Im less familiar with that part of MoCo. My understanding is that A those areas, dont have the radburn style bike/ped connections that at least some LoCo PUDs do - and B. are NOT seperated by rural areas.

basically thats what LoCo develops into if you leave things as they are. The proposals in the post are an attempt to prevent that, and create a better eastern LoCo.

"The towns would be compact and have a mix of uses, allowing them to have distinct centers and a strong sense of community identity. Schools and community centers would go in places where they can be easily reached by foot or bicycle."

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 15, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

The original Manhattan grid also didn't have central park. But now is a great open space. The point being street grids don't solve the problem of needing parks/open space/or preserving the opportunity for agriculture and open space doesn't absolve one from planning everything else to make a location work.

Loudoun definitely missed the boat but is apparently taking tenative steps to rectify what it can.

by drumz on May 15, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

The ag reserves cause the development to be more spread out. Their "value" is to provide more space without the residents having to pay for it. They are unfair to the farm landowners and lead to inefficient land use.

I wouldn't underestimate that "value". Suburbanites like having an open, rural area next door and there are a lot of people living in rural areas who want to preserve their rural character. However, you're incorrect in saying that residents won't have to pay for it. As with MoCo's ag reserve, they will have to compensate the farm landowners for their loss of development rights.

Assuming the folks wanting to preserve open space and the folks who own the open space (sometimes the same people) can agree on a level of compensation, that would be the definition of a market-clearing price. That would represent an efficient use of land based on free market principles.

by Falls Church on May 15, 2013 12:42 pm • linkreport

Assuming the folks wanting to preserve open space and the folks who own the open space (sometimes the same people) can agree on a level of compensation...

A good question; reminds me of the King Farm case (family: $20M; IRS: $600M). The price in such situations is very much a matter of the beholder. It will surely make a lot of lawyers rich, too.

by goldfish on May 15, 2013 12:57 pm • linkreport

Goldfish,

The key in justifying the compensation provided to the farm landowners is to compensate them with development rights instead of cash. Basically, you're taking away some of their development rights on their land and giving them development rights in Eastern LoCo. This way, you don't get in the tricky discussion of valuing development rights on an absolute basis, rather just in relation to each other. The landowners should be amenable to the arrangement since development rights in Eastern LoCo (where they would be receiving rights) are generally more valuable than rights in Western LoCo (where they would be losing them).

Of course, the farme owners likely don't own land in eastern LoCo where they could exercise their newly acquired rights, so they're allowed to sell the rights to people who do own land there.

by Falls Church on May 15, 2013 1:23 pm • linkreport

@goldfish: Interesting case, but in that case, the landowners were basically trying to dupe the IRS by claiming that a 5-year preservation easement cuts the land value by 99%. No reasonable person thinks a 5-year easement cuts the land value on a developable farm that significantly.

by JimT on May 15, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

@JimT: two points:

1. Consider the year of the transaction, 1981 -- $600M in those days for a farm was utterly unheard of. $20M was much in line for what they sold for in those days.
2. Work on your math: 1-20/600 = 97%, not 99%.

by goldfish on May 15, 2013 2:39 pm • linkreport

Really looking forward to part 2 of this post. I'm going to be moving to Round Hill and want to make sense of the latest plans!

by JLE on Jul 25, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

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