Loudoun County Zoning Ordinance Rewrite: Get it done now!

“When 56 individuals sign up to speak at a Board of Supervisors meeting, it’s clear something important to many people’s lives and futures is on the agenda,” Board Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D) said on July 26 at the first public hearing on the draft Loudoun County  Zoning Ordinance Rewrite.

No question. Out in force were representatives of the Data Center Coalition, tourism and entertainment industry, real estate, small business, commercial and residential development, attainable housing, wildlife conservation, preservation, historic villages, wineries and breweries, equine community, agribusiness, and organic farming—all to voice their support or opposition.

The document is a four-year “Herculean effort,” in the words of Supervisor Mike Turner (D-Ashburn), that required thousands of county staff hours, countless meetings and memos of stakeholder representatives and a Board-appointed Zoning Ordinance Committee, 25 work sessions and two public hearings of the Planning Commission, plus the processing of thousands of comments from individuals and groups.

Since that July hearing, the supervisors have rolled up their sleeves and come together in work sessions to review, challenge, deny, or approve changes to the 1993 ordinances that no longer align with the county’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan.

Indeed, the county website explains, “the purpose of Zoning Ordinance Amendment (ZOAM)-2020-0001, Zoning Ordinance Rewrite, is to implement the Loudoun County 2019 Comprehensive Plan, modernize land uses and definitions …  improve the legislative application review process …  make improvements based on public input, and incorporate changes based upon revisions to the Code of Virginia.” When adopted, the new Loudoun County Zoning Ordinance will repeal and replace the current ordinance.

In short, it is a policy document that provides guidance for elected officials and other governmental decision makers as to where and how the community will grow over many years.

However, it is in no way a vanilla government treatise. It is chock full of details and the devil is in them.

A few questions illustrate the need for clarity: Can you sell your land to a developer and can that developer build houses in clusters (more profitable) and on prime agricultural soils?  Must you include a certain percentage of attainable housing units in a new development? Does that  new data center coming in down the street need to be set back 200 feet from property lines? Can it be so tall that it blocks your view of the Blue Ridge? Can you open a brewery on a five-acre parcel where you don’t grow hops? How large a wedding can you hold in your winery before you need a special exception from the county? How late can you leave the bright outdoor lights on and still comply with the rural dark skies ordinances? Can you build a large modern home in a historic village of modest farmhouses? Can you install digital signs at your place of business? Et cetera.

Among the more troublesome issues are new rules on cluster zoning and protecting agricultural soils; data center location and design standards; source water protections; use standards for western Loudoun “Limited Breweries,”  “Limited Distilleries,” and “Virginia Farm Wineries”; stable, livery, and equine event facility uses and standards; indoor recreation; outdoor lighting and music hours. Also on the list is the Evergreen Mill Road Corridor Area Plan.

Lining up behind issues that impact data center standards and growth, real estate, land development, and tourism are the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, Data Center Coalition, Dulles Area Association of Realtors, Loudoun Wineries Association, Loudoun County Brewers Association, and Visit Loudoun, which represents the interests of hotels, inns, B&Bs, restaurants, event centers—virtually anything to do with the county’s tourism economy.

Tony Howard, president of the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce, spoke at the July 26 BOS public hearing and laid out chamber members’ concerns.

“I would like to address the Attainable Housing chapter. This issue is so important to the Chamber because it impacts the economic and social vitality of our community … The bottom line: Loudoun simply does not have the housing inventory and variety of housing options at all price points to support our economy and our workforce.

“These are serious investments, and they require a zoning ordinance that is aligned with the board’s goals, which include creating 10,000 additional housing units that are affordable to workers making at or below 100 percent of the average median income.

“As currently constructed, the draft ZOR will lead to inefficient processes that make it harder, more expensive and more uncertain to develop housing for those who serve our community.”

Chuck Kuhn, owner of JK Land Holdings, told Bisnow, “If you’re a landowner in the county … you should be concerned about what’s being proposed and how it can and will affect your property and the property values … If we can do it right and fast, that is great. Otherwise, I strongly ask the county to slow down and get it right.”

On the other side of most rewrite issues are the organizations pressing for slow growth but fast approval of the ordinance draft. Conservationists and preservationists in western Loudoun aim to eliminate cluster developments and restrict the number and nature of events at wineries and breweries; promote preservation of historic villages with stronger land use and architectural standards, increase the agricultural economy through ancillary, on-site businesses, and expand opportunities in the equine industries.

Hillsboro Preservation Foundation’s Maura Walsh-Copeland, who has served as lead consultant and representative for the conservation and preservation community on the zoning ordinance committee, believes, “Much has been accomplished, however, there are still some inconsistencies and challenges identified by stakeholder groups, citizens, and advisory groups that have not been addressed in the ZOR draft text. Many of these challenges are planned for future Zoning Ordinance Amendments (ZOAMs), however, these issues may not be resolved for several more years.”

During the Sept. 7, 2023, work session, the Board of Supervisors took a straw poll vote in which the board unanimously favored a grandfathering framework for legislative and administrative applications that are officially accepted for review in accordance with applicable county ordinances and policies on or before the date on which the new zoning ordinance is adopted.

“Grandfathering,” according to the county’s summary document, “is a discretionary action by the board to exempt one or more classes of pending development applications from the requirements of any new or amended zoning regulations.”

The BOS meeting summary explained, that the “board’s intent is to allow applications officially accepted as complete by the adoption date of the new zoning ordinance to continue to be processed under the provisions of the Revised 1993 Zoning Ordinance, provided the applicant does not make any modifications” to applications.

“The board also authorized administrative and legislative applications to retain grandfathered status for so long as the applicant diligently pursues approval of such application. The board directed staff to develop objective standards for determining whether an application has been diligently pursued …

“A final vote on the grandfathering resolution will occur at the time the Board votes to adopt the new Zoning Ordinance.”

Robert Pollard, chairman of the Loudoun County Heritage Commission, expressed the preservation and conservation community‘s concerns on grandfathering to the supervisors at the next work session.

“Please instruct staff to strictly limit the opportunity for this practice. We believe the board should identify clear cutoff points—that is, exactly what stage in the review process an application must reach before it is even eligible for grandfathering.

“Why?  Because otherwise, developers could effectively circumvent the new rules and regulations by getting their properties grandfathered before they even complete a formal application. You know, seemingly small exceptions to the rule like this can later became major loopholes–big loopholes that developers can drive a truck  or even a bulldozer through.”

Pollard raised one more essential point. “Now, here’s a key message from that community: It is critical to finish the zoning rewrite this calendar year. This is arguably the most important legacy of this board. Failure to get it done now would delay implementation of important reforms and improvements that affect everyone’s quality of life … Please finish the job this year.”

BOS Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) agreed. “It’s important to get the county’s zoning ordinance in line with its new comprehensive plan quickly.”

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