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Downzoning Threatens Our Rights

Sunday, July 23, 2006

I am against the Clem-Burton plan and against downzoning without compensation for the landowners who would be most affected. This proposal will severely reduce the value of land in the western part of the county, in some cases by as much as two-thirds. Much of this land has been owned by the same Loudoun farm families for generations.

My husband's family has owned a 250-acre parcel near Lovettsville for the past 85 years. My brother-in-law is farming it, as did his father and grandfather before him. He is now nearing retirement age, can no longer manage the work on his own and will need a source of retirement income. As a result, about 15 months ago we began subdividing the land and preparing to sell.

Preparing land for a subdivision in Loudoun County is a long and expensive process. We have paid for wells and drain fields, hydrogeological studies, nitrate studies, engineering studies, planning and surveying. The preliminary subdivision plan has now been completed and submitted to the county, after an investment by family members of more than $500,000. We are not a wealthy family, and this investment represents money we expected to use for retirement. Now we await the decision of the Board of Supervisors.

We are just one family caught up in the proposed zoning changes. Other Loudoun landowners in a similar situation have spoken at public hearings held by the board and the Planning Commission. It is easy to say that these landowners knew that they were taking a risk when they began the subdivision application process and that they should have anticipated a change in zoning. The fact remains that at this point, not even board members can say for sure when and how the zoning changes will be made.

If the proposed downzoning becomes a reality, people who have made every effort to comply with current regulations are entitled to some protection. A grandfathering plan is the only way to be fair to them. Landowners should not be penalized because of the complexity of the process or because of delays over which they had no control. If there is no grandfathering provision, these families will not have the financial means to repeat all the necessary steps of the subdivision process under the new zoning, and some of them may face bankruptcy.

The land in western Loudoun has been referred to as a "view shed" and "scenic open space." Those who use these terms seem to forget that the people who own this land deserve some consideration. Most of these property owners are not independently wealthy and cannot afford to donate their land to preserve the scenic character of Loudoun, as some have suggested.

Surely a plan can be formulated that preserves the quality of life in Loudoun and at the same time is fair to these families. I do not think that Clem-Burton is that plan.

Many supporters of Clem-Burton cite traffic congestion as a reason for downzoning, but there have been no studies proving that the proposed restrictions would solve that problem.

A large portion of the traffic that frustrates everyone in Loudoun originates outside the county and is the result of Loudoun's low supply of affordable housing, particularly in the west. This problem will be magnified when western land can be divided only into large parcels. A house built on 20 acres will not be affordable to most people. A bigger supply of affordable housing in the west will mean more taxpayers for our county -- and fewer people driving through Loudoun but paying their taxes in another county or state.

The debates on this subject have created bitterness between east and west, between property owners who need to sell their land and those who want to continue, at least for now, to farm or keep their land as open space. Surely, with effort, we can find a middle ground.

Passing the Clem-Burton plan, especially without grandfathering, will only cause more dissension. Lawsuits will be filed, because for some, that will be the only option as they seek to prevent bankruptcy. The animosity will continue for years to come. Can't we do better than that for Loudoun County?

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