From the Blue Ridge to the Bull Run (and everything in-between) the mountains of Loudoun County are a place of scenic beauty, recreation and refuge. They also contain the headwaters to numerous public water resources, support groundwater recharge, and provide valuable habitat for plant and animal communities. It is easy to believe the mountains will always be quietly providing their benefits to Loudoun residents, but the mountainsides are highly sensitive to land disturbance and development.
Currently, Loudoun County is undergoing a Zoning Ordinance Rewrite (ZOR). The Zoning Ordinance is a key document that regulates land use and development per the goals, policies and objectives set forth in Loudoun’s Comprehensive Plan. As part of its rewrite process, the County is proposing updates to the Mountainside Overlay District (MOD), which regulates development on the mountainsides.
In August, the Planning Commission began its review of various chapters from the draft ordinance with a public hearing. While the MOD was not directly addressed at this review, it will likely be considered at the Planning Commission public hearing, on January 24, 2023. With this opportunity coming up, it is important that Loudoun residents have conversations within our communities about the benefits of mountains and the threats they face.
Improving Mountain Protections in Loudoun’s Zoning Ordinance
Loudoun County should better protect mountains in the Mountain Overlay District by:
- Updating the definition of the MOD to protect mountains from base to summit. Currently, the boundaries of the MOD are based on a range of both technical and aesthetic factors that often leave out parts of mountainsides. Mountainsides are defined by the presence of certain natural features such as elevation, forests, steep slopes, unstable soils and groundwater recharge areas. An updated definition of the MOD should be more geographically exact and protect the mountains from base to summit. Such a boundary could be determined by an accepted slope or elevation change.
- Ensuring permitted land uses are appropriate for mountainside slopes: Both the current and proposed Zoning Ordinance allows all uses permitted in Zoning Districts Rural North (RN) and Rural South (RS) – formerly designated as AR-1 and AR-2 – to be permitted in the MOD. Not all of the permitted uses in these districts are appropriate for the delicate MOD environment. Rural resorts, agritainment, amphitheaters, equestrian event facilities and other permitted uses could cause significant traffic, parking, noise, lighting and waste disposal issues.
- Including performance and design standards in the Zoning Ordinance that protect mountain resources: Many of the current design standards lack strong enough language or fail to consider impacts to various resources. Examples of environmental standards that should be addressed to more appropriately guide development in mountain settings include preserving natural ridgeline features, retaining forest canopy, minimizing impervious surfaces, protecting wildlife corridors, safeguarding dark skies and tactfully buffering the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
- Improving zoning enforcement: Zoning enforcement has been a consistent complaint from residents across the Rural Policy Area. Zoning enforcement within the MOD should be guided by two principals: 1) The penalties for zoning violations should be sufficiently robust to discourage violations and not simply become a cost of doing business, and 2) when possible, the penalties for serious zoning violations should require the responsible parties to restore disrupted land back to its original condition.
For an additional perspective on these issues, please review the recommendations put forth by Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
How can you help?
Make sure your voice is heard! As previously mentioned, we expect the Planning Commission to hold another public hearing on January 24, 2023. We will confirm that date in January. We encourage residents to provide spoken input at that hearing. Comments can also be submitted through the County’s online form, by calling (703) 777-0246 (Option 5), or by emailing the Planning Commission at email@example.com.
PEC is working with a coalition of organizations in Loudoun County to advocate for stronger mountainside protections within the zoning ordinance.
Questions? Please contact Hallie Harriman at firstname.lastname@example.org.