Lessons from Loudoun: What can Albemarle County learn from Loudoun County’s Rural Roads Program?

Albemarle County (Virginia) has a well-defined boundary between its residential and commercial area, which is organized as neighborhoods (surrounding the independent City of Charlottesville), and a much larger distinctly rural area.

That preserved countryside is a significant part of the region’s appeal and Albemarle’s rural roads hold significant value for the community as places to walk, run, bike, and ride. Albemarle is updating its Comprehensive Plan, a 20-year vision for housing, economic development, parks and recreation, natural resource protection, transportation planning and growth management.

As Albemarle takes another look at its own future⁠—and how to preserve what it has historically done well⁠—now seems like a good time for local advocates to hear from their counterparts in other localities, who have been successful in similar socio-physical landscapes.

Loudoun County (about 75 miles to the north of Albemarle) has been very intentional in its approach to protecting its unpaved rural roads and its approach is nationally recognized. 

Mitch Diamond and Emily Houston of the Loudoun Rural Roads Committee generously agreed to give a presentation to the Piedmont Mobility Alliance on April 25, 2022. That video is posted above.

Written Q&A

Prior to the presentation, Mitch responded to a dozen written questions; Emily’s additions are in blue.

Lonnie & Peter: What is the review process for Loudoun County before a road gets on the paving list and how do you think that process could be improved?

Mitch, Emily: The current process involves an annual assessment of potential roads for addition to the six-year plan from both VDOT and from residents of the roads. The proposals from VDOT get reasonable and objective review based on a variety of measures, although how difficult a particular road or stretch of road is to maintain seems to be the primary criteria. The other source of additions of roads to the paving list are the supervisors who base their requests on residents contacting them with requests for paving. (I don’t think these are always petitions.) but the petitions from residents get added to the list without similar review if a sufficient number of residents indicate their desire. 

Our committee has proposed an objective review of all proposals based on a weighted consideration of all factors, where residents’ petitions would be one factor to consider among others. This is a system in use in other communities around the US, but while attractive to many, has not yet been successful in receiving serious Supervisor or staff consideration. After the development of a draft list, the complete annual revision to the six year plan is presented to the Supervisors for a vote. Our committee is invited to participate in the discussions leading up to the plan drafting and BOS review – but like any citizens group, has no vote. I’m not sure I would say we have no vote. We have “officially” been identified as one of the parties to be consulted in the selection of future projects.

The other aspect of this that I don’t think we fully understand is the role of DTCI. They seem to act as a coordinator – they take the requests and budget estimates from VDOT and the requests from the supervisors and put them together in the document that goes before the BOS in the annual “public hearing” but we don’t really know what influence they have over final decisions, other than that they seems to be very interested in making sure the supervisors get their requests into that document.

What is the process for removal, and likewise how could that be improved?

I am not sure if we have had any experience of removal of a road from the list. I expect that might happen if a majority of residents on the road ask for the removal. But, since the entire funding for the next six years is already committed, new additions are scheduled for action six or more years into the future – leaving time for changes later.

Does your planning commission have any input into the road paving process, and if not, would you find that to be beneficial? 

I do not believe that they do… it would provide another opportunity for public review and for consideration against various factors, but would also add considerable time to the entire process

Also, the planning commission is not involved in the process here [in Loudoun].

Have you done any work to explicitly identify/quantify rural road use by pedestrians, cyclists and runners? (Do you know which roads are used most by these groups, and does that factor into your process?

We have tended to be careful to not single out particular roads as more “worthy” of consideration for protection for any reason – emphasizing that it is the “network” of roads that provide so much historic and recreational value. Individual recreational event sponsors choose individual courses for their own reasons, but we have not done that.

However, in some cases during discussions of specific paving proposals, we have asked equestrian, bicycling and other groups to offer their own views to the County on the value of the specific roads in the discussion.

Does Loudoun directly engage with local cycling, running and walking groups to get their input on the impact of local decisions like road paving? 

The county does engage with local groups like bicyclists and equestrian and hiking groups for advice about trail and road usage, but in paving decisions, the opinions of those groups has been solicited by us to be presented in public input sessions.

A frequent argument is that paving gravel roads creates less erosion and thus is better for water quality. In protecting gravel roads, how do you mitigate any run-off issues?

The environmental impact of gravel versusAs Albemarle takes another look at its own future⁠—and how to preserve what it has historically done well⁠—now seems like a good time for local advocates to hear from their counterparts in other localities, who have been successful in similar socio-physical landscapes paving in not totally clear. The runoff issue has been a serious issue, but in our view, and in the experience of other experts, excessive run off is due to improper design and care of the unpaved road. A proper gravel formulation with sufficient fines and binders, properly applied and rolled can provide a durable and lasting surface even on steep slopes, but Virginia does not have a suitable standard mix for a road surface or an engineering standard for applying and maintaining such a mix. Our committee has been working with the Virginia Transportation Research Council and our local VDOT office to develop such a mix, run tests and define standards for use in the Commonwealth.

Further, the environmental impact of rural roads is also strongly linked to the handling of water flows and drainage design, to the effect of permeable versus impermeable surfaces on the roads and roadsides and to the effect of vegetation and mature trees along the roads. And, to the impact of faster driving (usual with paving) and the asphalt dust from paved roads. Gravel run-off is just one of many considerations.

We might want to talk about how DSA was developed in PA under the auspices of the state’s Department of Conservation specifically to address water quality. We could send them the DSA Technical Bulletin which cites the improved water quality as one of the benefits.

Does Loudoun have any goals around biodiversity, climate change and/or rural area protection? If so, how do you measure progress towards achieving those goals, and once again does gravel road protection factor in? If not, can you imagine doing so, and what would that look like?

The county has some vague goals and is interested in developing better ones. The newly formed County Environmental Commission is in the process of developing policy recommendations on these and other issues. I don’t think they have reached down to the level of gravel roads yet.

As you know, VDOT has a “use it or lose it” policy in regards to paving funds. In the past, Albemarle decision-makers have felt pressured into paving rural roads out of fear of losing paving funding altogether. How has Loudoun addressed this? Have you considered adding a legislative item that would allow localities to use those funds to be used in a more productive way consistent with our comprehensive plans?

As I mentioned in an earlier e-mail, there is more flexibility in the code of Virginia and in the Rural and Rustic Guidelines than Loudoun or VDOT uses now. There could be more, but what already exists is not being used.

This issue of flexibility is (in my mind) a really critical one. First of all, the Rural Rustic Road Program manual (which we would add to the documents we send them) does give the Residency Administrator (in our case Jim Betz) a lot of discretion in how a particular project is handled. That why you see something like Scotland Heights, with its double yellow lines, super smooth surface, chevrons on every turn, etc. versus Williams Gap, where they made some effort to retain the rural character and put a bunch of effort into solving drainage problems. As you mentioned to these folks before, the manual refers to “hard surfacing” and a “compacted surface.” It does not dictate asphalt.

Another key point on flexibility…you mentioned the wording Randy Minchew had put into the “Act to direct the Department of Transportation to maintain the rural road network in Loudoun County” (March 24, 2014) but I think a really key use of the word “improvement” appears in the description of the district grant program (which is now the only source of “unpaved secondary highway funds” since the CTB Formula funds ended in 2020). In the Code of Virginia, it says “Funds from the highway construction district grant program established pursuant to 33.2-371 shall be allocated for the improvement of nonsurface treated secondary highways that care 50 or more vehicles per day.”

It only says “improvement.” It does not say “paving.”

What does a quality rural roads policy look like?

I think it needs to clearly define the roads to be included in such a policy, recognize the value of the rural roads to our economy and heritage and capture the multiple goals of safe and efficient transportation balanced with the need for natural and historic preservation, recreational benefits, environmental responsibility and fiscal efficiency. It also needs a process for making decisions that explicitly captures and considers these factors. And, it needs to make those decisions with as little political distortion as possible.

The political aspect of the decisions is a real weakness. It also stems from lack of public awareness – citizens think that the choice is between the unpaved roads we have now and paving, not being aware of the options for far superior unpaved roads, and the environmental and fiscal benefits of those.

What are the principal elements of Loudon’s approach?

As we outlined in our “white paper” our principal argument and approach has been that (1) the unpaved roads have significant value to the County from their recreational, scenic and historic character. (2) they need to be maintained properly so they provide safe and efficient transportation, and (3) preservation and maintenance is more fiscally responsible than paving. And, that we work closely with our local VDOT team to understand their issues and concerns, treat them as partners, help them gain the resources they need and try to cultivate their support for our goals.

Our committee has used a wide variety of methods to make those points ranging from individual discussions with decision-makers, regular meetings with local VDOT staff, cultivating like-minded officials, sponsoring of legislation, public presentations at formal public reviews, multiple media articles, images and videos and many discussions with other preservation and other civic groups in the region.

Maybe we could talk about America’s Routes and the National Register effort here. Some suggested text:

We also have a nonprofit effort – America’s Routes – which works to create public appreciation of the roads through photos, stories, videos and a website, acting in a sense as a “public relations agency” for the roads. The most important project of America’s Routes however, is our effort to have the road network listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2020, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) declared the roads eligible for National Register listing, an important first step in the process. We are currently moving forward with obtaining the full national designation.

Additionally, through the efforts of America’s Routes, Preservation Virginia placed Loudoun’s unpaved road network on its 2020 list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places. These are examples of how America’s Routes works to gain public understanding of the historic value of the roads.

How do you balance the interests of recreational users and local residents who may actively dislike them?

We have tried to be aware of any issues and help event sponsors reduce impacts on residents and other users that they may not be familiar with – like equestrians, dog walkers, bicyclists, hikers and farm equipment drivers, to encourage respect for private property during these events and to make residents part of events by fully informing them and giving them roles to play in guiding riders, providing refreshments and so on.

More Resources

About the Authors

Mitch Diamond is a retired businessman and an active preservationist. He is currently an appointed member of the Loudoun County Heritage Commission, a member of the Executive Committee of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition and sits on a variety of other committees. He, his wife, and multiple animals live on a historic farm on an unpaved road in Loudoun County.

Emily Houston worked in publishing for many years and is a lifelong equestrian. She is the editor of Horse Times magazine, a member of the Loudoun County Equine Alliance Board and the Rural Roads Committee. She lives on a small horse farm bisected by a gravel road.

Lonnie Murray currently serves as a member of the Albemarle County Natural Heritage Committee, which advises the Board of Supervisors on issues regarding natural resources and biodiversity. He is also an elected Director on the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District.

Peter Krebs is PEC’s Albemarle & Charlottesville Community Organizer. He leads PEC’s local efforts to improve community connectivity and quality of life.