Like St. Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus, a developer becomes a conservationist
By Charles Houston, photos by Douglas Graham
The Piedmont Virginian celebrates the good life in the foothills of Virginia, but forgive me. This article is not so happy a tale. In fact, much of it is a warning to other Piedmont counties. While this piece should be neutral reportage, it’s difficult to hide my conservationist leanings. I’m proud of them.
On June 20, after three-plus years of work, Loudoun County’s new Comprehensive Plan was approved by the Board of Supervisors. It landed with a thud.
Developers, realtors, and the Chamber of Commerce did not get the growth they wanted. Conservationists believe the plan permitted too much growth and had many other flaws. Some Supervisors opined that, since neither side was happy, the plan was “balanced” and, therefore, good. I opine that supervisors were jaded, tired of constant barrages from competing businesses and conservationist interests, and simply wanted the unhappy process to end.
The Plan must be viewed through many lenses.
You know what’s at stake: beautiful rural lands, farms large and small, a genteel way of life, horses grazing, bold streams, artists and artisans, centuries of history, networks of rural roads that take you back in time and not just to some destination. And more.
Dialogue with a developer
When Loudoun’s war resumes over a new zoning ordinance, the opponents should remember an adage from the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu: “Know your enemy and know yourself.” I wanted a developer to explain the business side of the conflict, so I interviewed myself:
“Tell me about yourself.”
“My name is Charlie Houston and I developed a lot of signature corporate office buildings all over the south. My projects were never controversial. We carefully chose sites that would not pit us against a community.”
“In Loudoun,” I said, “there are constant squabbles.”
“Perhaps, but we had the same motivations.”
“Benjies. I’m a capitalist, and in most places, I believe growth and profits are good. Some places need an economic boost. Others hardly need more people or a stronger economy, but want it anyway. The Virginia Piedmont is a special case. Many new folks want to move here and homebuilders want to build houses for them. Building more houses to meet demand is basic capitalism. Because of community objections, though, that’s easier said than done.”
“So, what do developers do?”
“They plan for the future. Citizens are usually just reactive and don’t plan for the long term. Developers’ quivers are full of arrows. Collectively, they fork over tens of thousands in campaign contributions and are experts at schmoozing politicians. It’s also not just about today’s money. Businesses and homebuilders understand something important that the citizens just don’t get. They successfully set the agenda and terms of the comprehensive plan debate.”
“Did they have a case for what they wanted?”
“Absolutely! That’s who they are. Think about it: If you live in a house or patronize stores or restaurants in a shopping center, that’s because a developer built them. Nothing wrong with seeking a profit. They and the conservationists are simply on opposite sides of some challenging issues.”
“Tell me more,” I asked.
“Home Builders and realtors actually got a ton of giveaways in the plan. The plan is dense reading and a lot of conservationists possibly stopped after the early chapter on general goals for the parts of Loudoun that are in the Piedmont, its “Rural Policy Area” and the “Transition Policy Area.” They should have had more coffee and read a later chapter, “Housing.” It’s a developer’s dream and a nightmare for us conservationists.”
Current supervisors took office in January 2016 and their terms would be full with the regular work of running a big, prosperous county. I conjecture that board leadership wanted a “big issue” that would crown their term, something more than just overseeing day-to-day matters. A new comprehensive plan fit the bill. Virginia’s commonwealth code commands counties to write new plans every five years, and Loudoun’s current one was overdue. The county had metastasized from about 165,000 people at the last plan, to more than 400,000 today. This merited a new plan, and that was a meritorious goal.
Conservationists were deeply cynical. After all, why did previous boards ever let Loudoun get so big? Worse, all the pro-growth forces were pushing for a new plan, the Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, the Dulles Area Association of Realtors and similar groups.
During the preceding several decades, the county had commissioned biennial surveys of citizens, and in every single one, the two biggest complaints were growth and congestion. Year after year, the public had been ignored. Cynicism was justified.
Potential threats were impossible to ignore, so conservationists donned their helms, gauntlets, and greaves. It was a challenge since a pro-growth county staff had its thumb on the scales, adding bureaucratic weight for developers.
Skirmishes began in March 2016 with a “Plan Charter,” which was a tip-off of trouble ahead. It was filled with pro-growth language, stressed the need for economic growth, and said that a new plan must embody “market realities,” meaning as many houses as realtors could sell.
This charter stipulated that the new comprehensive plan must have robust public input (it did, though citizen input was overwhelmingly negative,) and must enjoy “strong community support.” (What it got instead was a strong community revolt.)
After concocting a catchy name — Envision Loudoun — the plan moved ahead according to mandated procedure.
An overview of the comprehensive plan
The new plan is divided into logical sections: “Introduction,” “Quality Development,” and “Visions” for specific areas, including the creation of an urban planning area around the much-delayed Metro line. Natural and heritage resources. Housing. Fiscal management. The Countywide Transportation Plan. The “Visions” for specific areas became the casus belli — the impetus for the conflict. Conservationists had a narrow focus: The Rural Policy Area and the Transition Policy Area, but it was the Housing section that left me reeling.
Supervisors knew that “messing with the west” would bring political havoc upon them. Thus, they publicly promised that the rural area would be left alone. To a great extent, it was.
The plan projects that by 2040, 695,000 people will live in Loudoun, almost 300,000 more than it has today. That was frightening, but there was a hotter, focused flame.
The Transition Policy Area (TPA) was planned just as its name suggests: a transition zone between the densely subdivided east and the bucolic west. The TPA was supposed to be mostly low-density residential, retaining its country roots, but its proximity to the eastern suburbs made it the homebuilders’ next target. The TPA became the primary battlefield in the war over Loudoun’s comprehensive plan, its Gettysburg.
The process begins
The board created a “Stakeholders Committee” to produce a draft comprehensive plan. It was dominated by builders, realtors, and business interests.
Conservationists had several seats on the committee and fought a guerilla war behind the scenes. The influential Loudoun Preservation and Conservation Coalition did yeoman’s work preparing item-by-item rebuttals. This had minimal success with the hard-core stakeholders, or later, with the even more hard-core planning commission. Later, the coalition was effective in informing the supervisors of the problems with the plan.
The county’s planning director, Ricky Barker, oversaw the stakeholders’ work, which soon slid into a two-year morass. A frequent comment then heard in the county building was “Envision Loudoun is off the rails.” Barker was fired and responsibility given to Charles Yudd, the deputy county administrator. An effective executive, Yudd got things back on track.
There were more stakeholder hiccups. The most memorable was in a public update to the supervisors. The head of the stakeholders, a software salesman in real life, proposed an additional 18,000 or so houses in the TPA. Supervisor Matt Letourneau famously asked the guy, “What planet are you from?”
Handoff to the planning commission
When the stakeholders finished, their draft plan went to the planning commission. In Loudoun, it’s a powerful and controversial pro-growth group that often diverges from citizens’ wishes and even from the wishes of the supervisors who appointed them
The commission cited a study: “Housing units provided were not keeping pace with the evolving needs and demands in terms of availability, type and price.” That later became “meeting unmet housing needs” and was the plan’s foundation. Think about that: It implies that Loudoun will take controversial actions today for the purpose of accommodating people who don’t even live here.
Some examples: flexible density, greater building heights in many areas, modifications to zoning and design standards to get cheaper housing, a focus on “affordable housing.” For perspective, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, we have exactly 169 homeless people. Helping them does not require any of the changes the plan says we need. I believe that the ubiquity of “affordable housing” is not because of some spirit of kindness, but is a ruse by homebuilders to get by with smaller lots.
Planning commissioners almost obeyed one dictate from the supervisors: to leave the Rural Policy Area (RPA) alone. They couldn’t help themselves, though, and moved about a square mile from the RPA to the TPA, where they proposed denser housing.
Housing Über Alles!
Loudoun’s biggest problem was never addressed. Planners speak of housing “in the pipeline,” of which there are 49,000 countywide. These are units that could be legally built today on undeveloped parcels which have appropriate zoning. The rural area faces thousands of these potential houses.
The comprehensive plan is based on controversial assumptions: That Loudoun needs a stronger economy (odd, since it’s the richest county in the country) and must have more housing to support economic growth. (Debatable.) That it must accommodate everyone outside the county who wishes to move here. (That’s styled as “unmet housing needs” and is a realtor-driven construct.) That we must have much more “affordable housing.” (Nowhere does the plan say how much such housing we should have, or where it should be.)
The final plan contains a lot of developer-approved statements: Give density bonuses and “other incentives” in “appropriate” areas to address unmet housing needs. Fast-track applications for Affordable Dwelling Units. Incent a mix of smaller or affordable housing, though it doesn’t say how much affordable housing we need (only a “sufficient amount.”)
Zoning would be further changed so that “Clusters are the preferred residential development pattern.” Loudoun has many cluster projects, all at a much higher density than normal, and I can think of only one which does not offend its neighbors.
The plan suggests consolidating small lots for agricultural use — a worthy goal. There’s also been talk of letting small parcels consolidate to be large enough for conservation easements — even better.
Save Rural Loudoun has a dire warning about zoning and densities in the plan. “It will be the death of northwestern Loudoun” since zoning there is less protective than in the Middleburg area. Some 67 square miles of prime farmland have already been lost, per the Virginia Farm Bureau, and without better zoning, Save Rural Loudoun projects greater losses.
Conversation with a conservationist
Alizee “Zee” Minette lives near the village of Philomont in the middle of Loudoun County. Zee and her husband own a 30-acre farm. She rides, now in their outdoor ring, but sadly remembers riding on the unpaved roads and through unfenced land and woods. Then a developer bought the big farm next door.
Zee became an outspoken conservationist and is not shy about sharing her opinions. “Let me start with some basics,” Zee said. “Then I’ll give you an angry earful.”
I was eager to hear both.
Zee began, “There is much talk about ‘future residents,’ their ‘anticipated needs’ and ‘unmet housing needs,’ but citizens don’t want anymore growth. This is populism vs. special interests.
Loudoun’s plan should begin with a population cap, then address how to meet it, even if that means downzoning. Instead, this plan has bad assumptions and wacky ideas, like accommodating everybody who moves here. Remember, any new housing, anywhere in the county, will cost all taxpayers. Suburbanites and rural folk get equally hurt.”
Zee jested, “Now I’m getting cranked up. The plan has a lot of giveaways, such as free or subsidized land for homebuilders who might, just might, build something affordable. Can you imagine an official plan that gives free land to developers? If we get stuck with that, then make giveaways available only to non-profit organizations.
“The Plan also wants ‘affordable housing’ to be by-right. I don’t like that. There’re too many by-right uses now. I prefer requiring things to get Board approval, since at least there’s some political accountability.”
Zee had one more thing to say. “Loudoun has 255 miles of unpaved roads. They give character to the county and are safer than higher-speed asphalt but these roads are getting more traffic from cluster developments and cut-through commuters. The hunt used to come through here but now we can’t ride on unpaved roads and the woods have turned into McMansions.”
I next interviewed an important spokesman for rural preservation. In return for anonymity, he gave me some unvarnished thoughts.
“It should be titled ‘Blueprint for Destroying Loudoun.’ People want middle-class housing, as proven by the houses they buy. I’m cynical – who is pushing this? Mainly builders, for density and profits, but a lot has come from starry-eyed planners and consultants who thought they were writing a plan for Portland or Poughkeepsie. Sort of an idealistic Lake Wobegon, where everyone and everything is simply average.
“Here’s one: ‘Strong demand for housing necessitates strategies to increase density, incentivize innovation in unit types, facilitate affordability and …to reduce development costs.’ And who do you think gets the benefits of reduced costs? Not home buyers.
“Then here’s a purposeful lie: ‘The public expressed broad concerns regarding rising housing costs and the availability of diverse housing products to meet the needs of the county’s growing population.’ I was at most of the meetings. I knew what the people wanted, and it was the exact opposite of what’s in the plan!”
The man grew philosophical. “To propose all these major changes suggests that something is really wrong with Loudoun. It’s not. We have a good and happy life here, but this plan will end it.”
I’d just heard a lot of anger. I will add my own.
A curmudgeon gets a bully pulpit
The language of the plan is off-putting, chock full of words that once were simple but now are trendy or even political: holistic, sustainable, diverse, dynamic, inclusive, innovative, collaborative, outreach, lifestyle, vision. Did junior consultants write it on their laptops while Starbucks-ing?
I object to more than silly words. The plan wants a range of housing types and prices to attract businesses for our “economic health.” Data centers disprove this idea, as do the “Help Wanted” signs all over Loudoun. We’re already the richest county, so why do we need more economic growth that would bring in more people and cause more congestion?
The plan says “significant changes to land use and zoning regulations will be necessary to address the county’s housing needs, with a particular focus on identifying appropriate areas for new residential growth, redevelopment and increased residential densities.” I would reverse it: There would be no housing growth, no increased densities anywhere, and much tougher zoning regulations. To the push for affordable housing, I’d advise, “Get a roommate.”
The plan says that in-commuters “lose important social and employment connections” and thus we should build cheap housing so they can become Loudouners. Let that sink in. Supposedly it’s Loudoun’s obligation to ensure good social connections for out-of-staters.
It wants to reduce zoning and design standards to get more affordable housing. This and much of the plan is social engineering, not land-planning. It is also full of foolishness, like its idea of sending “housing ambassadors” to towns to help them meet unmet housing needs. What condescension! I also ponder what groups are behind this huge push for cheaper housing. Suggestions?
I can be foolish, too. We already have affordable housing. It’s located in West Virginia and Maryland and we don’t have to pay their astronomical schooling costs. Nor do they congest our roads with trips to the bank, grocery, and so forth.
The supervisors get political
After about three years, the new comprehensive plan had departed the stakeholders, been redrafted by the planning commission, and been sent to the board of supervisors. They were hamstrung by a Virginia law that gives boards only 90 days to review the plan. Supervisors griped, but the county attorney could find no way around this stipulation.
There’d been rumors that the board was angry at what they sensed the planning commission would do, and already had staff working on revisions. Still, they were hampered by the 90-day deadline. The board could have opposed the plan and sent it back to the planning commission to buy time for careful review. The commissioners’ attitude? One of them, Cliff Kierce, cackled to me, “If they deny it, we’ll just send it right back, as-is.”
Conservation groups rose in opposition. Save Rural Loudoun was one, as was a coalition of villages. The most effective was COLT – the Coalition of Loudon Towns — from Middleburg in the south to Purcellville in the middle, and so on. They spoke wonderfully, but the train had left the station.
Here’s another prescription from the plan, “Develop an Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan.” This is to address unmet future housing needs and county staff work is now underway on the issue. The plan also wants focus groups of builders and employers; the people were left out. All of this should be left to the next board of supervisors, to be elected in November.
Beware of creeps bearing gifts
A comprehensive plan is essentially guidance. The ultimate battle will be over how it’s translated into a new zoning ordinance. Ideally, the new board of supervisors will take action to change or repeal the plan.
This story is a warning to other counties: Cultivate politicians and use those contacts — and perhaps some contributions — to influence any new planning or zoning effort. Be proactive.