Deciphering the Code for Land Development in Loudoun: Watch for Signs, Check Online and Read the Fine Print

By Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Loudoun County's landscape is in constant flux. Even on a remote country road, one doesn't have to travel far to spot a land-surveying team or a freshly graded field being readied for the bulldozer.

Visual evidence of development tells only part of the story. County figures show, for example, that there are nearly 38,000 housing units in the pipeline -- units that developers haven't started building but which already have a green light from county officials.

So how does one find out what's going up next door, or what might go up next year?

The first step is to understand that land development applications come in different forms, and the extent to which residents can affect the outcome will vary.

A developer whose plans are outside the scope of what the property's zoning allows -- who wants to build a warehouse, for example, on land zoned for retail -- must apply for rezoning or a special exception. Those applications require public hearings, first before the Planning Commission and then before the Board of Supervisors, a process that makes it relatively easy for residents to learn about the project and to weigh in with questions or concerns.

If you live next door to the property, the applicant is required to send you a letter notifying you about the proposal and the upcoming hearing. Applicants also are required to post signs on the property that give the date and time of the hearing and explain what the landowner wants to build.

The dates and agendas of public hearings before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors also are posted on the county's Web site,

The commission and the board usually refer such applications to one of their committees for study. Committee meetings are open to the public, so there are several opportunities to watch county officials discuss a project.

Some developments require a change not only in the zoning ordinance but in the county's comprehensive plan -- their density or their appearance doesn't conform to the official county blueprint for a broad section of Loudoun. That means the project can't go forward without a comprehensive plan amendment, or a CPAM, in the jargon of county planners and activists. That process, too, involves public hearings and public deliberations of the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

Other kinds of development applications don't require a public hearing, and those are harder to monitor. In most cases, a property owner whose project complies with county zoning still needs to submit a site plan or subdivision plan to the county's Department of Building and Development, which must approve it before a building permit can be issued. Keep an eye out for new signs -- the owner usually is required to post a notice on the property about the pending application.

You can also call the department at 703-777-0397 if you hear that such an application has been filed or is in the works. If it has been filed, you can ask which staff member has been assigned to the case and then contact that employee to pass along any concerns you have. Another option is to call the builder and ask its representatives to meet with you and other neighborhood residents -- or ask the county planning commissioner or county supervisor who represents your area to try to set up such a meeting.

It's important for residents to understand that their input will only go so far in those situations, said Loudoun Planning Commission member Peggy Maio. Unlike a county supervisor who can deny a rezoning request based on a judgment call about a development's likely impact on a community, the building department is required to approve applications as long as county regulations are being followed. You might be able to persuade the builder to enlarge the buffer between his project and your property, but "you can't make the project go away," Maio said.

Two county databases also can be helpful for getting land-use and zoning information.

If you want to know how a particular property is zoned -- whether the farm next door to the house you're buying, for example, could become an office park -- you can look it up on the county's online mapping system. You may want to do this on a public computer at the county Office of Mapping and Geographic Information, where county employees can show you how to navigate the system. The office is at the county government center in Leesburg.

If you want more details about a developer's pending application, go to the Department of Building and Development -- also at the government center -- and look for it on a database called the Land Management Information System. That system can be accessed only from the department's computers, one of which has been set aside for public use.

Finally, a monthly feature in Loudoun Extra lists building projects recently proposed or approved. The list, which runs on the last Sunday of the month, includes major developments such as subdivisions, shopping centers and office buildings. It does not cover every project.

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