A committee of farmers, developers and planners looking at ways to protect Loudoun County farmland is expected to endorse a proposal next week encouraging cluster development in the rural part of the county.

A subcommittee of the Rural Management Plan Task Force decided last week to recommend cluster development to the full task force when it reports back next week, after months of struggling to understand the long-range effects of a development process that is so rare no one knows much about it.

Clusters orginally were proposed in the task force as a way of allowing farmers pressured by rising operating costs to sell off part of their property without deleting large chunks of land from the county's dwindling pool of arable land.

Theoretically, a cluster is a development in which the houses are built close together on a few acres, instead of spread out on larger lots. For example, existing agricultural zoning in the county sets a minimum lot size of 10 acres per house. Assuming the farmer wants to develop 100 acres, for example, 10 houses could be placed in an area smaller than 100 acres under the cluster concept, leaving the vast majority of the land open for other uses such as farming or parks. In exchange for the county allowing the farmer to build a concentrated development, the open land then would be protected by easements from any future development.

In practice, though, in the few areas where cluster development has been encouraged, there appear to be some problems, and Loudoun's farmers are concerned now that the concept could open up acres of land that currently have little development potential.

"If you change the subdivision ordinance to allow clusters on lots without good road frontage, you are going to open up areas of the county that currently have no development potential at all," said Charles Planck, a Loudoun farmer serving on the Rural Management Plan Task Force. "A lot of the land that is developable has already been subdivided, and at the moment there is a greater pool of landlocked parcels. There are already too many houses, and I just don't want to vote for something that will allow more development."

Over the last decade, Loudoun farmers have watched farmland disappear at an astonishing rate, particularly since the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors lifted restrictions on subdivision of land into lots as small as 10 acres. This move, designed to give farmers greater flexibility in cashing in on extraneous acreage to finance farm improvements, is now seen as the culprit for what most county leaders agree is an undesirable development sprawl through the heart of this agriculturally based county.

While some farmers have benefitted from land sales, others have had problems with non-farm neighbors unaccustomed to rural living, said Planck, and those farmers are concerned that clusters will mean more suburban development and more problems.

"I had dogs in my cows this morning," said Donald Virts, a Loudoun farmer on the subcommittee and just one of many farmers who report losing livestock to attacks from neighborhood dogs. "It's bad enough when you have to fight the elements and the government, without adding problems caused by your neighbors."

"One of the questions for the subcommittee was whether clusters were to be a mechanism for preserving farmland or a mechanism for encouraging growth that would be visually, aesthectically, more pleasing," said Milton Herd, the county's agriculture planner and a member of the subcommittee that endorsed the cluster concept. "I think the subcommittee has agreed it is a development option rather than a preservation option."

One aspect of encouraging cluster development was that the process could make small, affordable lots available throughout the county, thereby increasing the rate of growth in the outlying areas the county wants to preserve for farming, Herd said.

"Our 10-acre-lot subdivision requirements produced a slow but steady rate of growth, quick division of the land but not quick development," said Herd. "There is fear among members of the Rural Management Plan Task Force that clusters would speed up development, and even if it ultimately produces a better kind of development, they are not sure they want it."

Another question the subcommittee raised was whether the county could afford to provide facilities for developments in the rural part of the county.

"Traditionally, 10-acre lots attract older people with fewer children who are not as immediate a fiscal burden to the county as a cluster with younger families might be," said Herd. "But that's an unknown, and it's hard to speculate when we know so little about how they work."

County planners traveled to Bucks County, Pa., this spring to look at some of the few existing cluster developments in the country, and concluded that, while the concept is good, poor planning and poor county oversight had produced developments with sewage and road problems. Herd said Loudoun's health regulations should be adequate to protect against sewage problems, but county farmers are not convinced that the state will be able to afford to make the road improvements they feel clustering might require.

"We've got a lot of secondary roads up here that do not have the capacity to handle a school bus or a trash truck," said Virts. "You have to look at the numbers of people clusters would bring in."

The subcommittee's recommendation would be to allow clusters at a density of three acres for each dwelling unit close to the county's five incorporated rural towns. Residential and business growth in the small towns has slowed in the last decade, and the task force early on endorsed making zoning changes that would bolster the towns' sagging economies.

The subcommittee's recommendation could have the desired effect, primarily through encouraging clusters within towns and within what the task force calls the rural fringe. The rural fringe is the area immediately outside a town's corporate limits, although the subcommittee has not specified whether it should be a half-mile-wide or mile-wide ring.

The difference will matter, because outside the rural fringe, in the area now referred to as the agricultural reserve, the subcommittee has recommended clusters be allowed only at a density of 25 acres for each dwelling unit. That restriction probably will curtail the amount of cluster development in the reserve because most of the land is zoned for subdivision into smaller, 10-acre lots.

The task force and subcommittee have now spent months on the issue of cluster development but there is still a long process ahead before any of their recommendations are incorporated into the county's zoning code and subdivision ordinance. Once the task force has adopted the subcommittee's recommendations, its report will go to the county planning office for more fine-tuning. Then the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will hold public hearings and consider the options, a process that could take months.