by Tia Walbridge, Democratic nominee for Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Blue Ridge District
We have a problem with cluster zoning in Loudoun County, and it’s time to elect leaders to our Board of Supervisors who will fix it.
Cluster zoning, which offers higher density in exchange for conserved open space and farmable land, was intended to be a clever compromise to mitigate by-right development and prioritize the preservation of Loudoun’s open lands and rural character. In theory, the land surrounding the cluster of houses would be kept in agricultural use and contribute to the rural economy.
In practice, lax requirements in the zoning ordinance have led to clusters that prioritize development while disregarding the quality of the land preserved. Instead of building houses around prime agricultural soil, the land set aside is of poor quality, often wooded, in floodplain, or in drainage areas. In a handful of places, houses are clustered around quality soil, but the soil is used to accommodate septic systems and drain fields, making it unusable for any kind of farming. And to top it off, the land in question is not actually conserved — without an easement in place, a simple zoning change or exception could add more density in the future.
We need to come together as a community, bringing conservationists, farmers, and developers to the table, to have a conversation about drawing new standards for cluster development. If we are going to continue to offer increased density in the heart of the Rural Policy Area, we need to get real protections for our rural land and economy in return. We must prioritize A1 agricultural soils when we decide which land to set aside. And we must tighten our zoning requirements so that the preserved land is placed under permanent conservation easement. These lots must be farmable so the open land can contribute to our agricultural economy. There’s been a major surge in young farmers who want to move to Loudoun to start small, 10-acre farms. We can and should supply this demand with farmettes on cluster developments.
Because Virginia operates under the Dillon Rule, limiting the power of localities, Loudoun County cannot eliminate by-right development altogether. But we can come up with creative ways to mitigate it. Preserving our rural heritage will require electing leaders who understand the intricacies of our current policies and the potential of new policies we have yet to explore — leaders who understand how current policies impact the situation on the ground, who are willing to listen to those affected. We need leaders willing and able to bring together coalitions on the Board of Supervisors and between stakeholders across the county to work together towards a common goal of protecting the unique balance of rural, suburban, and urban that makes Loudoun such a special place to call home.