Loudoun County's Board of Supervisors deferred a vote on a new ordinance designed to protect the streams of the fast-growing Virginia county and asked the county staff for more information on the contested legislation, called the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.
The board likely won't vote on the legislation until spring.
After two raucous public hearings in which some residents advocated killing the law, the board's action on Jan. 19 was a welcome reprieve, said the county's environmental engineer, Laura Edmonds.
"It was very positive," she said. "There were no motions to kill it."
The board is looking for more information on the quality of Loudoun's streams and its watershed management plan. It also wants to make sure the ordinance, if adopted, will allow residents to build small structures, like doghouses and patios.
In its original form, the act called for all water bodies to be protected by a 100-foot buffer where development would not be allowed. That would be called the resource protection area. The second level of protection is the resource management area, which is most of the land outside the protection area. Here, the county would require a grading permit if the builder planned to disturb more than 2,500 square feet of ground. Currently, the county's rule is 5,000 square feet for townhouses and multi-family projects and 10,000 square feet for single-family homes. The act also requires a pump-out every five years for septic systems in the management and protection areas.
The Chesapeake Preservation Act is mandatory in Virginia's tidewater counties. Loudoun would have been the first county to adopt it voluntarily.
The Loudoun County debate is seen by some as a prelude to issues that may arise as federal and state agencies seek further actions by local governments across the Bay watershed in coming years to help meet cleanup goals set in the new Chesapeake cleanup plan, or total maximum daily load, which was approved by the EPA in December.
Initially, the board of supervisors supported the ordinance. A 2009 study of the county's streams found 78 percent of them impaired, with no adequate protections required in the fast-growing Washington, DC, suburb. The board asked county staff how to solve the problem. They suggested adopting the preservation act that neighboring counties, such as Fairfax, were already using.
But Loudoun's strong homeowner associations got word of the process and many of their leaders were furious. Also unhappy were Loudoun's wineries, farmers and horse breeders, who feared they'd have to give up their rights to develop their land. More than 100 of these residents flooded a public hearing in September to ask the county supervisors for changes in the ordinance or to abandon it altogether.
The county decided to establish a stakeholder process so residents could suggest changes to the ordinance. But the board members couldn't agree who to put on the committee. Eventually, 37 people served on it.
Gem Bingol, who represented the county's water resources technical advisory committee and is also on the Piedmont Environmental Council, said the process did not go well. The group wanted a majority rule on contested points, and they wanted to make decisions immediately. One of those decisions was to cut the buffer to just 35 feet; another was to grant many exemptions; still another was to take a third of the perennial streams out of the picture.
"It was really quite disturbing," Bingol said. "The group was not a balanced group. People who were clear opponents used the committee as another opportunity to push the opposition. The citizens of Loudoun perspective were not all fairly represented."
The committee sent its report to the board, which held another public hearing Jan. 19. Again, several people called for the county to abandon the ordinance, especially in light of the Virginia's new watershed implementation plan, which outlines how the state plans to meet its Bay cleanup obligations.
But Edmonds said the WIP wouldn't sufficiently protect Loudoun's buffers, and she was glad the board seemed to want more information to protect the streams. When she gets her chance to come back, Edmonds said, she'll be well-prepared to speak to how the ordinance will protect local streams.