Preserve Our Thriving Rural Life

Sunday, July 23, 2006

As residents of western Loudoun County, my wife and I are watching the debate over zoning policies with more than a little interest. In 2000, we decided to buy a 55-acre horse farm near Bluemont and moved out here to escape the suburbs of Fairfax County and live in a rural community.

We felt strongly enough about helping to maintain the rural character of our new home that we put our property into conservation easement. We did indeed receive tax breaks for doing this, but at the same time we gave up something of real value -- the development rights to our property. Our farm would be worth more money today had we not put it in conservation easement. But its value, even under conservation easement, has continued to increase at a very decent rate, along with our property taxes.

Whatever tax revenue the county loses from our land being in conservation easement is almost certainly offset by the fact that county government will never have to provide services for the homes that could have been built on our land. To put it another way, horses may not pay taxes, but they don't go to school, either. We are net contributors to the county's coffers.

We are not just living in a rural community, however; we are supporting it every day of the year. We train three-day-event and dressage horses on our property. Half of our pastures are used by an experienced racehorse trainer. A neighbor hays two of our fields for his cows. We buy feed and tack at the local stores. All of our farm equipment has been purchased at and is serviced by local firms. Our barn is being renovated by a family company in the area. And, Lord knows, we support the local veterinarians.

The list could go on and on. The point here is that we help make up a critical mass necessary to sustain a rural community. Farms like ours spend a total of $80 million a year on equine-related services alone. If you add up the value of all those horses in Loudoun that some on the Board of Supervisors love to make fun of, it comes close to $300 million. The horse business in Loudoun is not a hobby horse business; it is big business.

It is encouraging to see that many farmers and property owners want to sustain the rural character of western Loudoun by passing down their land to their children and grandchildren. For them, there has long been the family subdivision process that makes this possible. Some board members are concerned about how well this process is working. Two points need to be made here. First, an examination of county records shows that the family subdivision application process even now is working pretty well. Average application approval time is less than five months. Second, Clem-Burton will improve this application process by making it much more flexible.

It is discouraging, but hardly surprising, to find property owners out here who are not worried about maintaining the rural character of western Loudoun or passing down their land to future generations but simply want to cash out at top dollar and are applying to the county to put as many houses as possible on their land.

A third of the people in this group have purchased their property within the past two years and half within the past six years. Most are experienced real estate professionals of one sort or another who took a calculated risk that their subdivision applications would be approved before the new zoning policies were implemented. The board has no obligation whatsoever to guarantee a return on these business decisions by watering down or delaying implementation of Clem-Burton.

Clem-Burton does not wipe out land values. It balances the interests of a majority of us living in western Loudoun who want to maintain a rural community against those who want to cash out at top dollar and eliminate that community.

Pass Clem-Burton and make sure we keep a rural community in western Loudoun.

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