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Loudoun County Adopts New Long-Term Plan Allowing More High-Density Development

Loudoun County has adopted a new long-term vision for its land use and development that allows higher density mixed-use projects around transit hubs and commercial corridors. 

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Thursday night voted to adopt the Comprehensive Plan, a 500-page document it has spent the last three years crafting. 

"This plan envisions redevelopment and revitalization of the underutilized commercial areas of the county," said Walsh, Colucci land use attorney Andrew Painter, who will speak July 10 at Bisnow's Loudoun County State of the Market. "It's recognizing they have to grow in a different way, and instead of growing out, they're growing up vertically. That's huge for a suburban community to recognize they have to grow differently."

Thursday's passage represents the first time the county has updated its Comprehensive Plan since 2001. A key addition to the plan is a land-use category called Urban Policy Areas. The category encompasses 2,600 acres around the new Silver Line stations planned to open next year in the eastern portion of the county, and it allows mixed-use development with a higher level of density than the county's previous land-use plan. 

"We have a whole new policy area, the Urban Policy Area, that did not exist before," Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair-at-Large Phyllis Randall said during Thursday's board meeting. "There will be more dense housing and we will have transit-oriented development, and I'm really happy about that." 

A map of Loudoun County from the Comprehensive Plan showing the land use categories

The Urban Policy Areas differentiate between property within a quarter-mile of the Metro stations and those farther away, allowing higher density, smaller unit sizes and more commercial space for properties closer to the transit hubs. 

"We have so many people moving into Loudoun, we need more places for them," Peterson Cos. President of Development Taylor Chess said. "I think that's part of what Loudoun is realizing, is Eastern Loudoun will be a very densely populated area, and they're trying to help facilitate better mixed-use and affordable opportunities."

But one of the county's new Metro stations that are planned to open next year, the Route 606 station, will not allow residential development because of the noise contour restrictions around Dulles International Airport.

Painter said the county should have found a way to work around this restriction to take better advantage of the new transit hub. He also said he would have liked to see more land included in the Urban Policy Areas. Compared to the 2,600 acres of UPA space, the county has 48,000 acres in the Suburban Policy Area, 24,000 acres in the Transition Policy Area and 230,000 acres in the Rural Policy Area. 

"Urban Policy Areas are still a small area relative to the rest of the county," Painter said. "I would have liked to see this type of planning approach at the Route 606 station, which is going to data centers. That to me is a very unfortunate result."

The first phase of the Loudoun Station development near the future Ashburn Silver Line station

The developments planned around the Ashburn Metro station could now include taller buildings under the new Comprehensive Plan.

The first residential and office buildings that Comstock Partners has completed at its Loudoun Station development are up to six stories tall. But Comstock CEO Chris Clemente said it is now planning an office building that could reach between 15 and 20 stories. 

"It allows for taller buildings and higher density close to the train station," Clemente said of the Comprehensive Plan. "So it would be logical to expect that we would evaluate those options and develop the balance of the project in the way that recognizes what the county's vision is for the areas around those train stations."

The existing office space at Loudoun Station is 100% leased, and Clemente said they have received strong interest for the future office planned at the project. He said Comstock has not decided whether or not to break ground speculatively on the next office building, but he hopes to begin construction before next year's opening of the Metro station. 

"There is pent-up demand in that market for well-planned urban centers that are based on these Metro stations," Clemente said.

Painter said the higher-density, mixed-use developments that the plan allows for should help the county compete with neighboring jurisdictions for companies and improve its office market.

"It's about how these companies attract millennials, and younger workers do not want to be isolated, they want to have places to go after 5 o'clock," Painter said. "By increasing residential around Metro that will drive retail options that will naturally benefit Loudoun because they will be more competitive, vis-a-vis Arlington and Fairfax, in attracting office users." 

Rappaport Senior Director of Leasing and Brokerage Susan Bourgeois said the higher-density development will be good for the county's retail market.

"The key for retail is density, density and more density," Bourgeois said in an email. "Density means multifamily and affordable apartments and lots and lots of them for all economic classes of people." 

A rendering of Peterson's previous plans for the Avonlea development

Painter had some concerns over the handling of the Transition Policy Area, a slice of the county in between the suburban and rural areas. He said the plan largely limits development in the areas to by-right residential projects, making it more difficult for developers to rezone tracts of land for larger projects. 

"I think a lot of folks that are looking to stop growth view any incursion into the Transition Policy Area as a Pandora's box," Painter said. "It's very harmful to the county to have a Transition Policy Area develop largely by-right, because you don't get any proffers associated with it."

Peterson Cos. has a development planned in a Transition Policy Area that is affected by the Comprehensive Plan, Chess said: its Braddock Spring project. On a 16-acre site at the intersection of Braddock Road and Gum Spring Road, Peterson had planned to build a 98K SF retail center, but it received pushback from nearby residents. Chess said the Comprehensive Plan only allows for residential on the site, so the developer will now pivot its plans to build about 50 units of housing. 

"Whether it was going to be a commercial or residential project was in flux due to waiting for this plan to move forward," Chess said. "It will be residential at this point, that's what it's being comp planned for. I could have gone either way, I just needed clarity as to which direction to go."

Peterson's 28-acre Avonlea Town Center project was also affected by the new land-use plan. The property had previously been zoned for commercial, and the developer had envisioned a mix of office and retail on the site, but it now allows for a wider mix of uses, including residential.

Peterson last year began working on new plans for a mixed-use development including residential in anticipation of the change, but it can now move forward with greater certainty. 

"We will continue to pursue our mixed-use zoning, and the Comprehensive Plan will put in place the right designation so we don't have to go in for waivers and amendments," Chess said. "So that one was great."

Beyond the individual projects, Chess said he is happy to see the Comprehensive Plan adopted because it creates an overall sense of clarity about the county's future development. He said he is glad to see a new plan in place that allows developers to move forward with projects, and he praised the county staff for the work of crafting it over the last three years. 

"It's great they finally have it done," Chess said. "Instead of guessing and continually jockeying, we're going to know what the ground rules are, and we're going to adapt to those ground rules if they affect our properties. Just the establishment of ground rules will make it much easier to do business in Loudoun."

Painter, Chess, Clemente, Bourgeois and several other top real estate professionals will speak July 10 at Bisnow's Loudoun County State of the Market