Loudoun Supervisors Approve Prime Farmland Preservation Ordinance

JK landholdings conservation

There is one thing that farmers in Loudoun County can agree on—they want to continue farming and they want their children to have the option to do so, as well. But they disagree on which path county leaders should take to ensure, as best they can, that agriculture will continue to be a part of Loudoun’s future.

Supervisors on Wednesday approved a Zoning Ordinance amendment with the goal of preserving the county’s prime agricultural soils and regulating rural cluster subdivisions after 40 community members spoke both supporting and opposing the change.

The project started in 2020 amid concerns that the goals of the cluster ordinance to create larger out lots for rural economy purposes were largely unmet. The lots were often unusable for farming because they are located on steep slopes, wetlands or poor soils, critics said.

The adopted revisions will apply to properties with at least five acres of prime soils, requiring that at least 70% of those soils be preserved in agricultural lots. According to the county planning staff’s research, 705 parcels covering 54,000 acres meet that criteria and the proposed regulations would protect 12,250 acres of prime soil. 

A farmer in Loudoun County shows a basket of locally grown products to the Board of Supervisors to emphasize the importance of preserving prime agricultural soils June 12, 2024. Hanna Pampaloni/Loudoun Now

During Wednesday night’s meeting, County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) unsuccessfully made a motion to increase the five-acre trigger to 10 acres. Supervisor Laura A. TeKrony (D-Little River) succeeded with an amendment to reduce that number back to five acres.

“Our objective is to preserve prime agricultural soils and it meets the 2019 Comprehensive Plan objective,” TeKrony said. “… We save more prime land, prime soils than we do with 10 noncontiguous acres. We save an additional 194 parcels and an additional 1,450 acres of prime agricultural soils.”

Many of the county’s small farm owners spoke in support of adopting the amendment, specifically mentioning the five-acre trigger.

“Last time we came before you, we detailed the ineffective nature of the current ordinance and how woefully inefficient it is at preserving working [agricultural] lands, how it fails to create and protect lots capable of supporting the desired rural economic uses and how it invariably aims to maximize the residential base at a steep cost to all other concerns,” Lincoln-area beef cattle farmer Sarah Brown said.

Others said good farmland is getting harder and harder to come by in the county.

But some in the county’s farming community said enacting the change would affect their property values and discourage use of conservation easements.

“The county is not helping farmers,” one farmer said. “It is hurting us. What you are doing will devalue the farm and hurt me financially. Now, I may not be able to retire. This is so very wrong.”

JK Land Holdings representative Charles Yudd said the company, which has placed hundreds of acres under conservation easements, supports conserving farmland but disagrees that the proposed ordinance is the right way to do it.

“We do not support the ZOAM because of the disincentives that it delivers to property owners,” he said. “As of 2022, approximately 72,000 acres have been placed in conservation easement in the AR-1 and AR-2 district; of that, 20,000 acres were prime [agricultural] soils. That can be contrasted with cluster subdivisions consisting of about 3,600 acres of which 1,100 were prime [agricultural] soils. … Conservations are probably more effective.”

In an effort to mitigate those concerns, supervisors adopted a “savings clause,” which allows county planners to administratively reduce the 70% prime soil preservation requirement to no less than 30% if the regulations would result in a reduction in the number of developable house lots.

JK Land Holdings representative Charles Yudd speaks to the Board of Supervisors about conservation easements during a meeting June 12, 2024. Hanna Pampaloni/Loudoun Now

“When we started this, for a couple of years I thought there is no way that you can preserve 70% of prime farmland and preserve the value of the land and I think that’s exactly what this clause does,” Supervisor Michael Turner (D-Ashburn) said.

Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), whose district contains much of the county’s existing farmland, opposed the ordinance amendment but said he was glad that if it did pass, it included the savings clause.

“I think this is language that really does help those seeking to do conservation easements,” he said.

Kershner unsuccessfully attempted to have any parcels of prime agricultural soils that are less than 2 contiguous acres excluded when reaching the 70% threshold. Only he and Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) supported the proposal.

“This is what I’m really calling the practical farming amendment to the ZOAM,” Kershner said. “… Under the current system that we are about ready to adopt as a board, you have to preserve 70% of every single prime ag soil unit on there. And you have to build your cluster or farm around perhaps these very isolated pieces of prime [agricultural soils] that are really not usable or farmable.”

Working around small pockets of prime farmland could result in misshapen housing developments or wasted space, he said.

Other supervisors said that approach would decrease the amount of prime farmland preserved and that they felt it was unnecessary, given the already adopted “savings clause.”

In an attempt to address concerns from residents who said they would lose value on conservation easements once the amendment was enacted, Randall proposed a nine-month delay start time for the changes. That would give residents enough time to put their properties into easements before the ZOAM could potentially affect their values, she said.

“You now have nine months from today to put land in conservation easement, and nothing we would do tonight, one way or the other, will affect that,” she said. “So, in nine months, if that has not happened then that’s a different issue.”

Umstattd disagreed, saying the effect on property values would be immediate once the amendment was adopted even if the implementation was delayed.

“The loss of tax benefits starts tonight,” she said.

The final motion to adopt the Zoning Ordinance amendment with a nine-month delayed start time passed on a 7-2 vote with Kershner and Umstattd opposed.

Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said he didn’t think anyone knows for sure what impact the amendment would have but reminded his colleagues that none of the changes have to be final.

“As I said earlier, the law is moving. If there are massive unintended consequences, it can be adjusted,” he said.

The changes will go into effect March 12, 2025.

Source: loudonnow.com