County seeks input on prime soils and cluster subdivisions

The following text was sent out via email on November 10, 2022. Sign up for PEC email alerts →

Farmland in Hillsboro. Photo by Marco Sanchez/PEC.

Dear Supporter,

You might not think about the ground beneath your feet very often, but soil is immensely, and perhaps surprisingly, important to our natural ecosystems, agricultural economy, and physical health.

In Loudoun County and elsewhere, the best soils are referred to as “prime soils” and are identified in the Virginia State Code. Unfortunately, we’re losing this finite resource – which can’t be reproduced or replaced – to residential development.

For that reason, Loudoun County is considering adding new protections to its Zoning Ordinance to help preserve prime soils when residential housing clusters are built in western Loudoun. The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes this coming Monday, Nov. 14.

We encourage you to support the County’s effort to save our most valuable soils by emailing the Planning Commission or signing up to speak at the public hearing.

Why are prime soils so special?

Not all soils are created equal, particularly when it comes to agriculture. Fertile prime soils produce higher and better quality yields of agricultural and forest products with less inputs, allowing the best economic return and encouraging sustainable farming. 

Prime soils are limited to areas where they naturally occur and cannot be recreated again once lost. This makes protecting them essential to ensuring current and future agricultural production and supporting a strong local food system in Loudoun and across the region.

Local farms provide food, forage, and entertainment, but they can also provide climate benefits, habitat, and water quality benefits when managed sustainably. In addition, supporting agriculture in close proximity to demand can reduce emissions associated with food transport and provide food security during times of turmoil.

Safeguarding our prime soils from development is an investment in the resilience of our community.

Why and how is the Zoning Ordinance being changed?

See maps of prime soils in AR-1 and AR-2 in Loudoun County on Flickr.

Although Loudoun has long recognized the importance of prime soils in its Comprehensive Plan and has endeavored to limit residential development in the rural area, there are currently no direct regulations to protect them.

Two years ago, the board initiated an effort to revise the Zoning Ordinance to address this – and better ensure that Loudoun can protect its best soils for future generations. County staff were tasked with developing a draft Zoning Amendment with recommended changes, which is now going before the Planning Commission for public review.

What’s in the draft?

The draft Zoning Ordinance Amendment demonstrates that County staff have listened and attempted to respond to longstanding concerns from the farming, preservation and conservation community.

PEC supports the following aspects of the current draft:

  • Developers must identify prime soils before any design work is done and consult with County staff on their protection.
  • The County is eliminating non-farming uses on farmland preservation and rural economy lots to ensure that agricultural businesses dependent on prime soils have that land available.
  • Developers are required to place conservation easements on non-cluster lots to ensure that prime soils are protected in perpetuity. 

What we’d like to see included in the next draft:

  • Lot sizes and drainfield locations adjusted to minimize the use of prime soils for development.
  • Limiting parcelization of farmland preservation and rural economy lots within a subdivision to help ensure that lots are large enough to be viable for agricultural operations.
  • A mechanism to avoid restrictive HOA covenants related to agricultural activities.

Lastly, the draft currently contains a requirement stating that developers must protect at least 70% of prime soils on parcels where development is to occur. Opponents of the Zoning Ordinance Amendment have indicated a desire for less, 50%. However, the Comprehensive Plan sets out to conserve natural resources in the rural area, not maximize development. Therefore, the County should require at least 70% of prime soils be protected. And in our opinion, 85% would be more appropriate.

What you can do to help:

Your voice is important in guiding the outcome of this ordinance. If you value our local food system and would like to see it maintained for the future please email the Planning Commission with your thoughts and concerns about the draft and share your perspective on the value of protecting prime farmland in Loudoun. Use this online form to sign up to speak at the public hearing.  

The Planning Commission briefing memo, which outlines discussion items for the public hearing, and the draft text of the Zoning Ordinance Amendment, are available now.

I hope you will weigh in on this Zoning Ordinance Amendment, as it is a step forward in the right direction. In the coming months, we’ll be sharing thoughts about other measures that will preserve our natural resources in each of Loudoun’s four policy areas (Rural, Transition, Suburban and Urban). Stay tuned! 


Gem Bingol
Loudoun County Field Representative
(540) 347-2334 ext. 7041