After a four-year debate, Northern Va. community moves to save farmland (2024)

For years, Loudoun County — long known for its lush farms that have put food on D.C.-area restaurant tables — has steadily become less rural as people in search of cheaper housing and more space moved farther west into newly built subdivisions.

That trend, which accelerated with remote work during the coronavirus pandemic, has been at the center of a rancorous debate over how to preserve the county’s remaining farmland. That debate finally reached a conclusion last month, when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors passed a zoning change that keeps developers from building on what is known as prime agricultural soil on property that has more than five noncontiguous acres of it.

But instead of settling the issue, the requirement, which mandates that 70 percent of that richer soil be set aside for farming and other agricultural uses, has only poured more fuel on the four-year-old argument in the county of 432,000 residents, with opponents predicting that it will undermine a popular land conservation program that has been more successful at preserving open space.


“If there is one thing I’ve determined, it’s really hard to tell exactly who is right in this,” Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) told his colleagues before the board approved the measure on a 5-4 vote. “I think both sides are probably a little exaggerated on various individual points.”

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The move, which takes effect in March, is meant to stem the loss of at least 1,120 acres of prime agricultural soil over the past two decades — due in large part to the onset of cluster subdivisions being built in western Loudoun after a 2006 state law allowed such developments to be built “by right,” or without special board approval, in rural areas of faster-growing localities in Virginia.

County officials say the zoning change will affect 705 properties, primarily in western Loudoun, while preserving 12,256 acres of prime agricultural soil.


Farming advocates said that will help rebuild a community of small farms in the county now known more for its data centers and wineries by providing them more opportunities to buy or lease smaller, more affordable plots. As land prices have escalated amid the wave of new development, it has been harder for independently owned produce or livestock farms to get a start, those groups say.

“You should not need to be a millionaire to farm,” Tia Earman, president of the Loudoun County Farm Bureau agricultural advocacy group, told the county board. “Not in Loudoun, not anywhere.”

Larger property owners who pushed for looser restrictions predicted that the regulation will backfire, leading to more subdivisions in the county and less open space.

The set-aside requirement will lessen the financial incentive to participate in a county land conservation program that has so far protected at least 20,209 acres of prime agricultural soil from development, those property owners said.


The amount of state and federal tax benefits garnered from placing undeveloped land into a conservation easem*nt depends on that property’s value, which is determined by its development potential, they say. Because many rural properties have open space that is either too rocky or hilly to build on, the more even areas where prime agricultural soil is likely to be are where that potential often lies, they say. Taking that away, they argue, lessens the property’s value.

“We expect there will be a substantial decline in land conservation in the county,” JK Land Holdings, the county’s largest private property owner and most active player in the conservation easem*nt program, said in a statement this week. “When faced with new regulations that are complex and require new uncharted procedures, a landowner may unfortunately choose to subdivide their property instead of placing the land into easem*nt. That is bad for Loudoun’s green space.”

Farming advocates argued that those claims have been exaggerated during the often terse community meetings over the issue that began in 2020.


After several attempts at finding a compromise, the two sides remained far apart heading into last month’s board vote.

Larger property owners, some of them hoping to profit from the continuing wave of development, argued that the farming or agricultural set-aside should be for parcels that have more than 20 noncontiguous acres of prime farm soil. The farming advocates, who had initially pushed for even tougher restrictions, were locked into the idea of five noncontiguous acres.

At the meeting, board chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) tried to split the difference, proposing a set-aside trigger of 10 noncontiguous acres. But that idea went nowhere.

Instead, Supervisor Laura A. TeKrony (D-Little River) successfully introduced an alternative motion for the five-noncontiguous-acre trigger, arguing that it best meets a county planning guideline that calls for preserving and protecting as much farmland and agricultural soil as possible.


“Our success story in Loudoun are our small farmers,” TeKrony told her colleagues. “Our vegetable farmers, our flower farmers, the farmers that do honey.”

Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), who opposed that measure, said it will strip many landowners of their property values.

“This is not a compromise,” said Kershner, whose district includes much of the affected area. “This is literally as much restriction as you can put on every single parcel that ever wants to cluster in western Loudoun.”

To mitigate the potential impact on land values, the board unanimously approved a separate motion that gives the county’s zoning administrator latitude to adjust the amount of prime agricultural soil set aside in cases where a developer could prove that the requirement would leave less than 30 percent of their entire property with developable land.


That was not enough to satisfy the larger landowners who opposed the five-noncontiguous-acre trigger.

Chuck Kuhn, whose JK Land Holdings company has placed 6,000 acres of Loudoun County land in conservation easem*nts, said he will quit doing so after the company’s recent purchase of 3,600 additional acres gets that designation.

“We have until March of 2025 to place them into easem*nt before the new rules take effect,” Kuhn said in a statement. “We will no longer be pursuing conservation easem*nts in Loudoun County when the new regulations take effect.”

After a four-year debate, Northern Va. community moves to save farmland (2024)
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