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Tia Walbridge: “Inexcusable” New Loudoun Comprehensive Plan Doesn’t Include Comprehensive Transfer of Development Rights Program

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by Tia Walbridge for Loudoun County Supervisor (Blue Ridge District)

The new Loudoun County Comprehensive Plan was never going to make everyone happy. The stakes are high, the county is big, and the competing interests are intense and many. But there are some things that aren’t controversial, some things that benefit the whole county and just make sense, no matter which way you look at them.

It is inexcusable that the new Comprehensive Plan does not include a comprehensive Transfer of Development Rights program.

We should have had an advocate fighting for the inclusion of a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program from the outset of Envision Loudoun. TDRs allow the county to transfer credits for development from rural areas to more urban areas, protecting our green spaces and active agriculture, which provide $1.7 billion in revenue to our county annually and keep property taxes low for all of us, from Bluemont to Sterling.

TDRs are one of three programs that represent the gold standard of conservation, along with Conservation Easements, which allow landowners to sell their development rights in exchange for tax credits and benefits; and Purchase of Development Rights (PDR), which gives the county the ability to purchase such rights to hold for future projects at its discretion. Both the conservation easement program and the PDR program benefits from cost-matching from the state, so not only are we failing to protect our rural lands by choosing not to make use of these programs we are also leaving real money on the table. These programs are used throughout the state and the nation and are not controversial or partisan.

Current Blue Ridge Supervisor Tony Buffington pays a lot of lip service to the idea of preserving the rural west. He proposed a Conservation Easement Assistance program that looks good on the surface and grabbed headlines, but erects insurmountable barriers to entry for the landowners who need it most: Who in Loudoun lives on more than 10 acres but makes less than $117,000 a year? He also voted against a proposal to look into establishing a PDR program in Loudoun simply because a Democrat proposed it, and lacks a basic understanding of the fundamental difference between TDRs and PDRs, often suggesting they are one and the same.

And finally, Buffington claims TDRs are now included in the Comprehensive Plan, thanks to him. In reality, there are two sentences that vaguely reference the possibility of a TDR program in the future.* That’s not how this works, legally or practically, and our representatives should understand that. Implementing a TDR program requires comprehensive and specific legal language to fulfill the state’s requirements and satisfy Dillon’s rule, including outlining sending and receiving zones for the development rights in question.

We can add a Purchase of Development Rights program later. We can work to improve Conservation Easement assistance so the program is more inclusive and effective. A Transfer of Development Rights program must be detailed within a county’s comprehensive plan to be valid.

Loudoun’s western representatives are either familiar with these conservation programs and the process by which to implement them and are actively working to undermine them, or they don’t understand the legal and technical details of the policies for which they advocate.

Agriculture is the leading private industry in Virginia, and Loudoun is a top contributor. Loudoun agriculture generated over $1.7 billion in revenue and provided 18,000 jobs in 2017. Our choice on whether to be proactive in putting in place policies to protect Loudoun farmers, farmland, and farm-based businesses impacts our entire Commonwealth. We need to elect representatives who are serious about protecting our quality of life, our economic engine, and our precious land.

 

*Pg 3-14

Natural, Environmental and Heritage Resources Strategy 1.1, Action E: “Should the Board of Supervisors consider adopting a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program in the future, a thorough evaluation of the countywide impact on sending and receiving areas for density transfers will be conducted and, if acceptable to the Board of Supervisors, such additional policies will be added to the Comprehensive Plan and considered for implementation with a future TDR ordinance.”

Then on the next page, as a sidebar: “Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) and Conservation Easements are tools available to the County and public and private entities to protect and preserve open space, farms, and natural, environmental, and heritage resources in perpetuity, allowing landowners to retain ownership of their property, while maximizing the economic value of the land.”