The Importance of Zoning

During 2022, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors (BOS) will be making critical decisions
on rural zoning. Zoning determines how many farms, fields, woodlands, and ridgelines will be
permanently cleared to make way for future development in our rural areas.

 

At stake is whether Loudoun citizens will continue to enjoy a balance of urban and rural
amenities or whether, in the future, they will need to look outside the county for:

  • Locally-produced food

  • Rural recreation, scenery, and history

  • Naturally clean water, air, and other environmental services

  • Carbon capture in woodlands

  • Diverse wildlife habitat.

A key policy goal under Loudoun’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan is to:

“Limit residential development to protect the land resource for agricultural operations, rural economy uses, and open space uses …”

The Zoning Ordinance is the County’s most effective tool for limiting residential development. Save Rural Loudoun is urging the BOS to incorporate strong, new rural preservation regulations in its revisions to the Ordinance.

 

Zoning Density

 

Zoning densities determine how many new residences may be built within a given area of land.

The County projects that, under current rural zoning densities, approximately 7,500 new residences will be built in its rural areas within the next two decades, which would increase our rural population by about 60 percent. It estimates that these new residences will generate 75,000 more vehicle trips per day on the county’s already congested rural and urban roads.

The County’s “cluster subdivision” regulations currently allow one new residence for every five acres of land (referred to as “5-acre zoning”).

  • Save Rural Loudoun is urging the BOS to adopt “15-acre zoning” in rural cluster subdivisions (one new residence for every 15 acres).

15-acre cluster subdivision zoning is already in effect in southern Loudoun (around Middleburg) and in neighboring counties like Fauquier and Clarke.

 

Zoning Protections for Prime Farming Soils

 

In 2019, the BOS endorsed an initiative to revise the Zoning Ordinance specifically for the purpose of preserving Loudoun’s remaining prime farming soils.

In January 2022, County staff circulated an initial draft of proposed zoning revisions aimed at preserving prime soils on cluster subdivision properties. While Save Rural Loudoun considered it to be a useful first draft, we identified four major concerns that we urged the BOS to address in subsequent drafts.

We specifically recommend that the cluster subdivision regulations:

  • Require that 80% of each property be preserved for farming and other rural economy uses

  • Require that all contiguous areas of prime soils of more than 5 acres be concentrated within large “preservation farm lots”

  • Not allow subdivision lots that contain septic drain-fields and other infrastructure supporting clustered housing to be counted as part of the land preserved for farming and other rural economy uses

  • Require that cluster subdivisions include open spaces for trails and passive recreation activities.

 

In August 2022, County staff circulated a second draft of their proposed zoning revisions. This
draft included several important improvements requested by SRL, including:

  • an increase in the minimum size of “preservation farm lots,”

  • a requirement that those lots be placed in permanent open space easement, and

  • a requirement that 70% of the prime soils on a subdivided lot be preserved from development.

 

However, SRL continues to have significant concerns with the proposed regulations.
The County estimates that there are approximately 44,000 acres of prime soils on properties
that may be subdivided for cluster housing. A requirement that 70% of those soils be preserved
means that the County would allow another 13,000 acres of prime soils to be permanently
destroyed. In addition, the August draft would allow areas of prime soils to be carved up into
multiple lots, making farming less economical.


With that in mind, SRL continues to seek a number of improvements to the latest draft of the
zoning amendment, including:

 

  • Considering how many acres of prime soils have already been lost to development, the percentage of remaining prime soils that must be preserved should be increased to 85%,

  • To maximize the economic potential for farming, the Zoning Ordinance should require that contiguous areas of prime soils are preserved within individual lots.

  • As we previously stated, private septic systems serving clustered housing should not be located on land the County considers to have been preserved from residential development.
     

Save Rural Loudoun’s detailed comments and recommendations on the draft zoning amendment are posted here.