A diverse committee of farmers, landowners, environmentalists and county planners has reached agreement on proposed revisions in Loudoun County's rural land management plan, after eight months of intense and sometimes heated debate on farmland preservation.
Their recommendations, which will be forwarded to the Loudoun County Planning Commission in the next few weeks, call for the county to extend new options to landowners in the rural areas rather than setting up restrictions or decreasing the development potential of rural land.
"We wanted it to be a palatable plan," said committee Vice Chairman Joan LeRock. "We knew if we were serious about preserving farmland that we needed to have workable, realistic solutions, and solutions that wouldn't scare the landowners."
The citizens' committee was assembled last fall by the Loudoun County Planning Commission to develop ideas on how to preserve Loudoun's dwindling stock of farmland and guide rural development.
Although the meetings have often been rocky, the final votes on the individual recommendations were unanimous. These recommendations are expected to be the blueprint for the master plan revision before the Planning Commission and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
At the heart of the recommendations is the proposal that the county set up a transferable-development-right program, under which the right to develop land in the agricultural conservation areas could be detached from the land and sold to developers seeking to increase building densities in areas of the county designated for growth.
The TDR concept has been pioneered in neighboring Montgomery County, Md., but was instituted there along with a massive downzoning of rural lands that some Montgomery farmers argue robbed them of the true value of their land.
In an effort to avoid the political battles traditionally involved with downzoning in Virginia, members of the Loudoun rural plan committee strenuously resisted any suggestion that land be downzoned, opting instead for a TDR program that will calculate the development value of each parcel through a formula rating the quality of the land.
"The committee felt that it would be unfair to give the same development value to all land in the agricultural conservation area, because the land is too diverse," said county planner Milton Herd. "The land with better soil--land that should be kept farmland--will be weighted more heavily."
To support the TDR program, the committee has called for establishment of a county-funded Land Trust Bank that could support the market price of TDRs by buying them when farmers are ready to sell. Although the committee did not specify a floor on the price of a TDR, it did request that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors initially supply the bank with $5 million to fund the purchase of the first TDRs. The bank then would sell TDRs when developers were ready to buy them.
If the TDR program is approved by the Board of Supervisors, the county will have to get enabling legislation from the Virginia legislature before the program can be implemented. The committee recommended that the board begin working for passage of such legislation as soon as possible.
There is some concern among committee members, however, that the TDR program may not be in place for years. Fairfax County officials, who considered using a TDR program to preserve the Occoquan Watershed, said they abandoned the plan after learning that few legislators in Richmond supported the concept.
To augment the TDR program, or to serve as a substitute if TDRs are not approved by the state legislature, the committee recommended a series of increasingly restrictive conservation easements that would enable farmers to get tax breaks from the county.
Under the current use-value assessment system, farmland in Loudoun is taxed according to its use rather than its development potential, and farmers get an average tax break of 75 percent. If a farmer later decides to develop his land, he is required to pay back taxes for the last five years, plus 8 percent interest.
Under the conservation easements suggested by the committee, a farmer who pledged to keep his land in farming for eight years would receive an 80 percent tax break. A farmer who pledged to keep his farm going for 16 years would receive an 85 percent tax break and would have to pay back taxes only on the last four years.
Herd and other committee members admitted that the conservation easement plan could play into the hands of developers already planning to delay development for eight or 16 years, but Herd said the committee hopes that the plan also will slow development.
"This is one of the concerns, that is true, but it is one of the trade-offs," said Herd. "The whole strategy of the plan was to add more options rather than take them away."
Other aspects of the committee's recommendations include establishing buffer zones between more intense development and the agricultural conservation area. The committee recommended that these "rural fringes" be half-mile-wide rings just outside the towns' incorporated limits, and that owners of fringe land be allowed to receive increased densities through the TDR program or to sell their development rights. The committee also voted to recommend that cluster development be allowed in rural areas, but only at very low densities, requiring at least 25 acres for each dwelling unit.