Adding its voice to the debate on how best to preserve Loudoun County's rural character, a private advocacy group has issued a 134-page "cookbook" showing how local communities could tax themselves and then use the proceeds to pay neighbors not to build houses on their land.
Under the proposal, distributed to county officials this week by the Hamilton-based Country Life Center, rural landowners who voluntarily give up the right to build houses would receive more than just cash. They also could be eligible for a new "bundle of rights" to develop bed and breakfasts, rustic corporate retreats and other commercial ventures compatible with a rural lifestyle.
The Country Life plan is the latest in a series of "purchase of development rights" initiatives that advocates hope will slow residential growth, especially in the largely rural western portion of the county.
County planners estimate that if trends continue unabated, about 70,000 more houses eventually could be built in the west. Earlier this month, a subcommittee of the county's Open Space Advisory Committee recommended spending $4 million to buy development rights to begin protecting forests, farmland and other open spaces.
Donna T. Rogers, who is part owner of a 1,000-acre farm and president of Country Life, is a longtime advocate of such programs. She sits on the subcommittee that designed the $4 million proposal. She said she decided to go ahead with this additional study after receiving a challenge from Brett Phillips, founder and former publisher of Leesburg Today. Phillips, who proposed a similar program in 1975, led the study and wrote the report.
Sitting in well-worn red leather chairs at her cattle and horse farm, Rogers and Phillips explained why they thought it necessary to weigh in with a major proposal on a topic already being tackled by a county committee. Their bottom line: They hope to complement the county's land conservation efforts and also to promote their group's pro-farmer and anti-regulation philosophies.
"As long as farmers can make a living on their land, they are not going to leave," Rogers said.
The proposal calls for "an incentive-based approach" that rejects "potentially punitive regulatory manipulations that have been advanced--and have categorically failed--to preserve the country."
Rogers said that as things stand now, improvements that could bring much-needed income to money-losing farms are often too costly or simply not allowed. For example, a farmer who wants to dig a pond where tourists could fish would need a special exception to rural zoning regulations, which can be extremely difficult to come by, she said.
The Country Life proposal seeks to raise the value of rural land so farmers, and other landowners, would have lucrative alternatives to selling to housing developers. Doing that would require changing the way much rural land is zoned.
The plan--"If you want bake a cake, you need a cookbook," Rogers said--calls for special "Rural Economic Development Districts," or R.E.D. Zones, that could be created on parcels of 50 acres or more. Commercial development, tightly limited in scope, would be allowed on the property, subject to strict rules on maintaining the rural landscape, Phillips said.
"There are people out there who are going to take the view that this is an alternative rape of the countryside," Phillips said. But, he added, "the county has a long history of commercial enterprises in the countryside," including everything from lodges to veterinarians to machine shops to mills.
"This is a return to the modern-day virtues of the way the county was developed in the past. It was not developed in three-acre lots with a house on it."
The study recommends creating "service districts" that could be used to levy taxes on residents of the district. The tax revenue would be reserved for purchasing housing development rights from property owners.
The study cites existing Virginia state law as the basis for launching such districts. Several limited service districts have been formed for other purposes in the county, including one in which businesses banded together to tax themselves to widen Route 28 in an effort to boost business. Once such arrangements are voted on by a community--which can range from several participants to thousands of participants--they become legally binding.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) praised Rogers's longtime involvement in issues relating to the purchase of development rights. He said he thinks the board will back the Open Space Advisory Committee proposal, and his response to the Country Life proposal was welcoming but noncommittal.
"You have two approaches here. Ultimately, the board is going to have to look at incentives-based programs to achieve the goal of maintaining the rural flavor of our community, as opposed to always having to regulate everything," he said. "That's the philosophy of the Country Life Center, and the board will look at their proposals."
In addition to Rogers and Phillips, the center's board members are G. Terry Sharrer, Joan P. Rackham, Louis S. Nichols and J. Jackson Walter. The group's study was funded by the Westmoreland Foundation, which operates Morven Park, the historic home of former governor Westmoreland Davis.