Out of Control Policy Blog

Loudoun Smart Growth v2.0

Despite a brief respite, smart growth is back in Loudoun County, VA:

    A diverse majority of Loudoun County supervisors voted last night to support far-reaching growth controls that could help shape development in one of the last remaining open spaces in the Washington region.

    The dramatic 5 to 4 vote ran counter to the expectations of some landowners and developers who in November 2003 helped elect a Republican majority on the county's Board of Supervisors with the hope of avoiding such controls. The decision also represented a vigorous response to a March ruling by Virginia's Supreme Court, which threw out a set of tighter building limits on a technicality.

    The proposed development restrictions -- backed by two Republicans, two independents and the lone Democrat on the Board of Supervisors -- would prevent the construction of tens of thousands of houses worth billions of dollars in a scenic expanse that constitutes the western two-thirds of the county. A final vote is still required.

    The proposal would allow builders to more than double the 9,200 houses the county says are now in the area. A competing proposal that could have more than tripled the number of houses in western Loudoun was turned aside yesterday. Current rules allow as many as 55,000 houses there.

    The plan endorsed yesterday would replace the three-acre-per-house zoning requirement that covers much of western Loudoun. Landowners would start with a requirement of an average of 20 acres per house in northwestern Loudoun and 40 acres in southwestern Loudoun. They could build twice as many if they follow guidelines for maintaining open space.

    The plan's most unusual feature is the introduction of an option to rezone property in exchange for contributions for roads, schools and other costly public projects. Such arrangements generally have not been employed in western Loudoun. Landowners willing to provide those funds could, with county permission, build a house every 7.5 acres in the north or every 15 acres in the south. The plan also allows landowners to sell individual parcels more easily than under the overturned restrictions and gives families rights to subdivide.

Here's the article. The anti-sprawl crowd is certainly celebrating this victory, which is puzzling since it will effectively (1) mandate large-lot development (which anti-sprawlers often malign as "McMansionization") in western Loudoun County; (2) will force development further out, perpetuating the regional sprawl that anti-sprawlers claim to abhor; and (3) artificially constrain the housing supply, which will place upward pressure on housing prices and price low- and mid-income families out of the market.

To claim that these mandates (if ultimately approved) will do anything to prevent sprawl is a stretch of the imagination. It's really just another illustration of the potency of reactionary NIMBYism and pastoral nostalgia.

So to the smart growth crowd I say: enjoy the celebration, but don't come back complaining about social equity or the impacts of low-density development 5 or 10 years down the line when the chickens have come home to roost.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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