Loudoun officials consider changing school site review process

In the coming weeks, Loudoun County officials will consider changing the long-standing process used to find sites for new public schools — and decide whether public hearings will remain a required part of every review.

That prospect has drawn a sharp response from some residents and representatives of Loudoun’s western districts who worry that the public would lose its voice in critical development decisions.

The Board of Supervisors voted, 7 to 2, at its June 5 meeting to consider amending the county zoning ordinance, which now requires the proposed sites of all new public schools to undergo what’s called a “special exception” review, a process that involves a comprehensive look at whether a site meets the standards required by law and also takes the public’s response to the proposed location into consideration.

County officials will now examine whether building schools should be considered “by right” use of land in many zoning districts, meaning that they would be allowed in those areas without the need for a special permit. In those circumstances, proposed school sites would not necessarily be the subject of a public hearing before receiving approval.

The possibility of changing the process was first raised last year by the county’s Joint Board of Supervisors and School Board Committee. A presentation by the committee included concerns about the high cost and low speed of subjecting all school sites to the special-exception process, especially in a county where the student population continues to rise steadily and new schools are urgently needed, officials said.

But several supervisors — as well as some residents who addressed the board at its meeting — expressed concern about eliminating the special-exception reviews. Board Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) emphasized that no decisions about amending the ordinance would be made without a careful review of the potential repercussions.

“I just want to get to a point where we’re having a discussion,” he said.

In the coming weeks, county staff members will prepare amendments to the ordinance that will first be reviewed by the Loudoun Planning Commission. That review process will include a public hearing before the commission makes its recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which will take final action on the matter. As of Monday, no dates had been confirmed for further discussion or public input, county officials said.

The drafted amendments would authorize schools as a by-right use in most noncommercial zones. A special exception would still be required in areas zoned for “general industry” and those designated for transit-related employment center development projects.

But the new rules would apply to many parts of the county, including large swaths of rural and agricultural territory in western Loudoun, a fact that drew a handful of concerned residents to the board’s meeting room.

Lovettsville resident Malcolm Baldwin told the supervisors that the potential effects of a new school go “far beyond” those of most other developments. A more thorough review, and the opportunity for the public to weigh in, is therefore necessary, he said. “Your role is to settle conflicts, and to come up with policies that are agreeable to the citizens and will meet the goals of the county,” Baldwin said

Mary Terpak, who addressed the board on behalf of the county’s Rural Economic Development Council, said council members had voted unanimously to oppose the amendment to permit schools as a by-right use in Loudoun’s rural districts.

“The location of schools in the agriculturally zoned areas of the county should continue to be subject to special-exception review and public comment . . . a school has a huge impact on the rural communities and the rural economy,” she said. “This would be a streamlining that cuts the public out of the process.”

Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) and Ralph Buona both said they thought that it was worthwhile to look into finding a way to make the selection of school sites more streamlined and cost-effective but that they remained skeptical about the prospect of removing the special-exception review in some cases.

“We have some diverse areas in this county, and sometimes one size does not fit all,” Volpe said. “I go into this process hesitant, but I will see how this process plays out.”

Buona shared her uncertainty, adding that he would like a clearer understanding of the impact of the special-exception review on the process of finding a site for a school.

“One of the things that I would like to see come out of the process is for the schools to quantify for us what it is costing us to go through the whole special-exception process every single time . . . and what it is costing us time-wise to go through this process every single time,” he said.

Buona noted that in a recent debate over the placement of a high school in the Lansdowne area, the special-exception process allowed supervisors to mitigate the concerns of many neighboring community members.

“That’s why I’m not convinced yet,” he said of the possible amendment. “We have a long ways to go, and I think there is a middle ground, potentially.”

But Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) said that the process of finding a suitable location for a school is slowed down by unnecessary review in some cases, resulting in delays of two years or longer.

Higgins said the possible amendment is not aimed at limiting public input or comment, “but I do think that we owe the taxpayers a stab at trying to make a more efficient and less costly system,” he said.

Supervisor Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge), who opposed the motion along with Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), said she could not support the possibility of an amended ordinance that would not exclude the rural, agricultural zones.

“I do think that the process does need to be refined, and I support looking into it for those zoning districts where it makes sense,” she said. “But for the rural zoning districts it doesn’t make sense. A special-exception process needs to stay in place.”

Before the final vote, York acknowledged that a compromise might not be attainable but reiterated the need to consider the possible benefits.

“Maybe at the end of the day, we don’t come out with a product that will work,” he said. “I will remind folks that we are the only jurisdiction in the area that still has this process, and it does take time, and it does take money.”

 
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