Loudoun County

The Loudoun Board of Supervisors is considering changes to the Zoning Ordinance and the Facilities Standards Manual that would concede the local government’s ability to protect the County’s natural and historic resources from development, as well as limit the public’s ability to provide input as development is proposed in the community.

 
The proposed amendments to the County’s Facilities Standards Manual are a problem because they would weaken the tree conservation and archeology reports that were previously required before developers break ground. The amendments would also eliminate the requirement to submit a preliminary report on the soil. The Planning Commission unanimously recommended the approval of these amendments and Board is taking public comments on the issue until October 3rd, 2012. PEC has shared our concerns with the Board but they need to hear from you. Please contact the Board of Supervisors and share your concerns. 
 
The Board’s proposed revisions to the County’s Zoning Ordinance are also cause for concern. These revisions would significantly reduce the public’s ability to provide meaningful input into the land development process. They proposed change would reduce the requirement for public notice from 21 days to 5 days, and developers would only have to give one notice rather than two. Also, many land uses that were previously considered special exceptions (meaning the public could be involved in the decision-making process) would be changed to by-right uses -- effectively eliminating any public input. The Planning Commission will be holding a public hearing on these proposals on October 24, 2012. We will provide more details about the changes as they are available.
 

Changes to the Facility Standards Manual:

The Facility Standards Manual (FSM) is a document developed to provide guidance about county policies, procedures, and expectations through the development process. It contains information primarily concerned with the design and construction standards and guidelines for improvements related to subdivisions and site plans.

The Facilities Standards Manual Public Review Committee has been appointed to review the manual, suggest amendments, and present those amendments to the Board of Supervisors for final approval. Below are three amendments that have raised concerns for PEC staff and members. 


ARCHEOLOGICAL STUDIES

One section in the FSM deals with requirements for archeological studies of proposed development sites. Currently a Phase I archeological survey, the identification of archeological sites on the property, is required with submission of preliminary application. The purpose of this is to ensure that the locations of existing archeological resources are identified before the a development proposal is approved, allowing time for applicants' designs to accommodate and avoid archeological sites.

The FSM Public Review Committee suggests returning to "Phase IA" procedure, which only requires an assessment determining if a Phase I survey was necessary at the preliminary application stage. This was the procedure followed from 2005 to 2009. However in 2009, the Phase IA requirement was removed and the Phase I survey was again required in the preliminary stages. The reasoning for that change is the same reason the County should not return to a Phase IA requirement. Although having a Phase IA at preliminary submission reduced upfront costs and decreased time an applicant waited to submit a development application, the unintended result was 1) additional County review time since two separate reports must be reviewed, 2) additional cost at later stages in the development review process, and 3) the identification of resources late in the design and approval process which minimized the opportunities to avoid and conserve resources. 

Update: Piedmont Environmental Council, Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, and the archeological community spoke at committee meetings and with Board of Supervisors about the negative impacts of this change and we were successful in maintaining the Phase I survey! However we need to continue to follow this issue and ensure that it is not put back in during the second part of this process. 
 

PRELIMINARY SOILS REPORTS

Another section in the FSM deals with studies of the soils on a proposed development site. The soils of a site have major effects on where drain fields, wells, and basements can be located on a site and where erosion is likely to occur. The county requires the submission of a "Preliminary Soils Review" (PSR) analysis with the preliminary submissions for a development. Having this detailed information early in the development process allows applicants to design a layout that avoids constructing dwellings on drainage swales, hydric soils, areas with extreme acidity, areas with high water tables, and other problematic areas. Such knowledge also informs decisions regarding erosion and sediment controls and stormwater runoff calculations. 

The FSM Public Review Committee suggests eliminating this requirement for an applicant to submit a PSR analysis except for development within the Limestone Conglomerate Overlay District and the Mountainside Development Overlay District. 

The proposed changes to the FSM would eliminate the requirement for an applicant to submit a PSR analysis and the County would be left filling the void. The county staff has stated that they will attempt to continue to provide this service without the benefit of the fees that were previously paid by the applicant but with this change the survey is no longer required. The county may choose to only conduct the survey in places of most concern or may not conduct surveys on sites that would require additional expenses such as backhoe operators and equipment (which was previously covered by the applicant).

Our concerns about these changes are listed below:

1) The generation of the PSR will now pass to the County with resultant loss in fees which were supposed to assist in off-setting County/taxpayer costs. 

2) The PSR includes a field investigation and report of the various soils present on a site. Following a field investigation, the PSR provides detailed soil mapping and drainage information and identifies the suitability of various areas for specific uses. Having detailed information early in the development process allows an applicant to design a layout that avoids constructing dwellings in inappropriate places and informs decisions about erosion and sediment controls and stormwater calculations. 

3) PSRs are required by the zoning ordinance in cases where a sanitary sewer line crosses steep slopes. 

4) PSRs also allow the Zoning Administrator to quickly determine whether steep slopes are constructed or naturally occurring and to identify the characteristics and boundaries associated with mountainside and limestone conglomerate areas. 

5) PSRs can also be used when competing for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants related to landslide hazards. Soils data from PSRs are also used when modeling watersheds as a part of stormwater mandates, including the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

6) The updated soils information allows County staff to quickly respond to drainage and wetness complaints from homeowners without the need for additional field study and report. 

7) While a geotechnical report is required later in the development process, it does not replace the functionality of the PSR. The PSR and the geotechnical report are two fundamentally different products. Whereas the PSR is a tool for identifying where to locate improvements, the geotechnical report is a tool for defining how to construct improvements once a location has been defined. A geotechnical report does not analyze soil types, determine the limits of various soils, or recommend a location for a particular use. A geotechnical report will analyze characteristics of a soil, such as load bearing capacity, to determine an appropriate engineering solution at a particular location. For areas previously verified by a PSR to have few soil-related constraints, the geotechnical investigation will require fewer soil borings, reducing the cost of development.
 
8) Placing buildings in unconstrained areas avoids expensive construction modifications associated with problematic soils. Within areas of problematic soils, an increased number of borings is required during a geotechnical investigation, increasing the cost of development and ultimately necessitating the use of more expensive construction techniques for dwellings and other constructed elements.
 
9) Eliminating the PSR requirement from the subdivision phase of development across the majority of the County introduces uncertainty, increased engineering, construction, and maintenance costs, and increased time into the development process. Establishing a subdivision design and lot locations without the benefit of a PSR could adversely impact homeowners who locate within problematic soil areas. The proposed change may result in the frequent use of a sump pump, property damage associated with flooded basements, or the inability to have a basement, thereby limiting the use of that property. 
 
10) Development in unexamined areas of highly erodible soils could impact waterways and aquatic life due to increased sediment loads. 
 
Eliminating the requirement for a PSR places the cost of conducting the survey on the county and if, due to limited county resources, the study is not conducted, it could ultimately complicate development, increase costs, and lead to avoidable impacts to resources and residents.


TREE CONSERVATION PLANS

The tree conservation section of the FSM ensures that trees are protected during the development process to protect our river and stream corridors, provide wildlife habitat, ensure healthy air and cooling of urban environments, and provide attractive and comfortable places to live in. Some changes to the requirements in this section raise concerns about how effectively trees will be conserved during future development. 

The proposed changes would eliminate requirements to inventory individual trees (species, size, and condition rating) on a development site and would allow trees on an individual lot of more than a half acre to count towards the tree canopy cover developers are required to maintain when developing a site. We are worried about this because on lots less than one acre in size, homeowners are likely to remove trees for pools, decks, gazebos, or other home improvement projects without knowing that they are actually required to be maintained as part of the development's tree canopy cover. 

Our major concerns are:

1) The proposed changes list resources that are to be considered priorities for conservation, including rare, threatened, or endangered trees, trees identified as part of a registered historic site, hedgerows/fence rows, and invigorated, healthy, structurally sound large trees. However, these trees are not required to be individually inventoried providing no means for ensuring their conservation. 

2) The proposed changes state that existing tree canopy located on residential lots larger than half an acre could be used to meet tree canopy, buffering, and screening requirements. This is problematic given the possibility of irregularly-shaped lots, large building sizes, driveways and walkways, steep slopes, drainage ways, easements, clearing and grading areas, and other features which may limit opportunities for homeowners to have the full use of their lots. Structures such as decks, screened porches, patios, pools, sheds, play sets, dog runs, etc. may be difficult to construct without removing or damaging conserved trees. Homeowners are likely to be unaware of tree conservation requirements on their lots and may be frustrated by such unknown restrictions, particularly in these constrained situations.

3) The proposed changes do not define the expectations in an area with a high number of invasive species or hazardous trees. Without any guidance, it is possible that invasive species could undermine the viability of surrounding trees over time and negate the usefulness of the tree conservation practices.

4) A full inventory of species, sizes and condition ratings for individual trees across an entire development site may not be necessary, particularly for larger conservation areas. However, for the sensitive areas of development, including those areas nearest to clearing and grading, areas associated with conservation priorities, and those on residential lots, an inventory is needed to identify healthy specimen trees, trees that are likely to become hazards, and trees that are diseased, insect-infested, or dying. For these areas, specific knowledge about individual trees is necessary to make decisions about conservation. A requirement for individual tree assessment also increases the likelihood that priority trees will be identified and protected during construction.  

 

Ask the Board to Get the Answers to Three Questions before Voting:

1. What is the problem or issue that the amendment seeks to address? For example is the issue simply related to pre-submission costs to the applicant or is it truly an attempt to improve the County’s review process?
 
2. What are the complete costs to the County residents in implementing the amendment? For example are there costs being shifted from the development community to the taxpayers?
 
3. What will be the expected impacts to County residents in implementing the amendment? For example will fewer trees be preserved, will significant heritage resources be lost, will application fees be lost and therefore costs will be shifted to County taxpayers?
 
 
The Piedmont Environmental Council feels that major revisions to the Facilities Standards Manual should be made thoughtfully and with the best interest of the County residents in mind. Please contact the Board of Supervisors to express your concerns. If you have any questions please feel free to contact our Loudoun Field Officers, Ed Gorski at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Gem Bingol at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 
 
 
 

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