Rural Loudoun County Holds Its Own

Loudoun Times, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 by Dale Peskin

As mass urbanization sweeps across Northern Virginia, Loudoun County is poised to maintain its rural character even as the population grows and development continues over the next decade.

That scenario is quantified in census data released last week as part of the 2015 American Community Survey. The survey found that, unlike neighboring counties, Loudoun is significantly rural. County policies are currently intended to keep it that way, while encouraging development in the county's eastern half.

The American Community Survey classifies Loudoun as 12.6 percent rural, far greater than Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William – counties that are almost completely urban.

About that number: The Census Bureau's definition for "rural" is any area not considered urban. The "urban" definition is set by measures including population growth, density, commercial development and the amount of impervious surfaces.

By geography alone, Loudoun is more than half rural with 200,000 of the 333,558 acres that comprise Loudoun County predominantly pastoral. But urbanization is reaching out to the farms and rolling hills where the horse-and-hound set holds fox hunts this time of year, where wine lovers flock to the county's more than 40 wineries and where longtime landowners seek to preserve a quiet, rural lifestyle in the Piedmont.

Rural areas are vulnerable in the current gold rush of development as new neighborhoods, proposed mini-cities and highways bring more people, more vehicles and more congestion to Loudoun County.

Traffic is already overtaking the county's scenic, rural routes. Route 15 between Gilbert's Corner and Point of Rocks and Route 50 between South Riding and Middleburg are clogged with rush-hour commuters from a congested transportation network that extends 40 miles to Washington. A traffic accident on the county's two-lane roads -- such as the one on Route 7 in Round Hill on Dec. 12 -- can not only be fatal but can shut down traffic for hours.

The extension of Washington's problematic Metro system, including the ambitious plans for mini-cities around Metro stations in the county, are projected to accelerate the flow of population, housing and commercial activity to Ashburn and beyond. Some developers are forecasting that the commercial build-out will be completed within a decade.

Loudoun's neighboring counties have triggered alarms about how quickly urbanization can overtake communities. Prince William County is 4.2 percent rural, Fairfax County 1.4 percent rural and Arlington entirely urban, according to the Census Bureau criteria.

For many in Loudoun County, rural is an abstract concept of hillsides and farmland rather than a concrete definition. It can be a difficult task defining the term "rural," an even harder task trying to explain it.

County planners apply criteria that is different from the Census Bureau's definition of rural. To guide land-use decisions, they've created policy areas for suburban, rural and transitional development. The transition area serves as a buffer zone for development between the suburbs in the eastern part of the county and rural land in the west.

The plan seems to be working, at least until the county adopts a new Comprehensive Plan as part of its Envision Loudoun process.

Even though Loudoun has grown rapidly -- as fast as any jurisdiction in the U.S. -- it has also pursued explicit programs to protect and promote its rural areas, says Gem Bingol, Loudoun field officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Loudoun has more than 54,000 acres in permanent conservation easements, in addition to more than 11,400 acres of parks and other public conservation areas, which combined represent approximately 20 percent of the land area in the county.

Recently, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors expanded the uses for business activities in rural parts of the county. Supervisors have also created a citizen's board called ZOAG (Zoning Ordinance Action Group) to advise county planners on zoning, land use and development issues.

But a majority of ZOAG members have interests with developers or work for them. The relationships trouble many preservationists. In a recent recommendation, ZOAG proposed an expansion of density by building town centers throughout the county.

"They have used their position as an opportunity to propose and promote zoning changes, which have major land use policy implications favorable to the development interests – often contrary to the public interest – that increase densities, lowers environmental standards, add to traffic and congestion, compromise the development standards for business development both east and west," Martha Polkey of Lucketts wrote in a letter to the Times-Mirror.

As if it needs to, the county aggressively seeks development in the county. It's economic development strategy, partially marketed as "Loudoun Possible," touts dozens of successes and a commitment for more success. County supervisors are enthusiastic supporters, sporting "Loudoun Possible" T-shirts in a group photo on the agency's Twitter page.

Buddy Rizer, the county's executive director for economic development, touts numerous "successes," evidenced by the expanding number of data centers in Ashburn's Data Center Alley, as well as interest in town centers around the Silver Line stations that are under construction. With few specifics, Rizer says that a number of major projects are in the pipeline.

Still, some residents of rural Loudoun are skeptical about whether growth can be confined to the suburban and transition zones in eastern and central Loudoun.

"The proposals for creating an 'Edge City' around Metro Stations in the eastern part of the county)is a major shift in land-use policy from the 2001 Plan," Al Van Huyck, an urban and regional planning expert who lives in Round Hill, contended in a letter to the Times-Mirror in October. "It raises numerous serious questions that I hope the Board of Supervisors will begin to discuss. While the upside of benefits to the county is well recognized, the downside of potential problems has not yet been fully explored."

Similarly, Upperville farm owner Bruce Smart, a former Fortune 100 CEO who served as an undersecretary of commerce in the Reagan Administration, is concerned about the motivations behind pervasive development.

"Developers see open land as a raw material for their business and personal enrichment, and contribute to politicians who will open it up for development," says Smart, a preservationist who occasionally writes a column for the Times-Mirror. "Rural landowners see that land as a treasure -- its scenic beauty, its peace and quiet, and its ecological benefits -- clear, clean surface and ground water, wildlife, and open space for recreation - biking, hiking, birding and equine sports available to urban as well as rural county residents. In today's world of hustle and bustle, the nearby available quiet open space is a treasure to be preserved, not paved over."

The sub-urbanization transforming Loudoun County since the 1980s has been a divisive issue for decades. Opposition became a movement in 2005 when residents in rural, western Loudoun considered seceding from the county and establishing a separate county seat in Purcellville.

But the opposition didn't hold. Eastern Loudoun residents voted in a majority of pro-growth county supervisors – a mindset that remains in control of the board today. The Virginia Supreme Court delivered a crowning blow in 2005, tossing out Loudoun's strict limits on growth.

Ten years later, the county confronts some of the consequences of extensive growth. One of the more pressing problems: a school system of 79,000 students grappling with overcrowding, the continual building of new schools and a tax rate insufficient to fund expansion.

Still, PEC's Bingol believes Loudoun is on the right course with development.

"Unlike Fairfax and Prince William, Loudoun has fought to retain its rural heritage -- to remain a source of local food, clean water and scenic beauty -- while experiencing growth rates higher than the Virginia average," she says. "An important concern is what additional strategies and tools Loudoun will employ to preserve the rural quality, character and economy."

She believes Loudoun's current approach to growth will either support the county's commitment to its rural roots or encourage continued westward sprawl. Rapid residential and commercial growth can be controlled and managed if Loudoun focuses on a relative balance of commercial and residential growth and refines the Comprehensive Plan so that development is targeted in transit-oriented locations within existing communities in the east.