Loudoun County Linear Parks and Trails and Trails Plan

Summary

With the COVID pandemic, the need and desire for open space dramatically increased. Loudoun County, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., sought a linear parks and trails vision plan to guide investment in nature access for its highly diverse and growing population. From a dense suburban population in the east to a rural environment in the west along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the desire was for a countywide vision that linked these varied landscapes and populations into a cohesive whole. Spatial equity, diversity and inclusion were plan priorities. The landscape architects used GIS to overlay natural resource mapping and identify the benefits of alternative schemes. A robust community engagement process built public support for the system. The landscape architects developed a training scheme for volunteers to inventory all existing trails within the county. They created an initial design of the first demonstration project. And the vision plan will guide the county’s negotiation with developers through the proffer system, ensuring that public trails get built and at-risk landscapes protected in pace with the county’s rapid growth.

Narrative

With the COVID pandemic, the need and desire for open space increased. Loudoun County, Virginia, 500 square miles of diverse landscape outside Washington, D.C., desired a Linear Parks and Trails Plan (LPAT) to guide investment in access to nature for its highly diverse population. From an urban population in the east, characterized by high-speed rail and riparian and floodplain zones, to a middle district of data centers and master-planned communities, to a rural environment in the west of historic towns, tourism, and equestrian properties, the desire was for a countywide vision that linked these varied landscapes, communities and destinations into a cohesive whole. In response to this diverse population and the resulting political complexity, spatial equity, diversity, and inclusion were key to the final plan, which was not a one-size-fits-all response but tailored to the population.

The landscape architect served as lead consultant of a multidisciplinary team to develop the countywide plan. With a fast schedule needed to meet the demand for open space, the landscape architects led a “mapping blitz” from the Blue Ridge on the West to the Potomac River on the east. As a byproduct of the plan, the landscape architects saw the opportunity to protect important natural resources and enhance the ecological value of linear parks and trail corridors. The first step was to use GIS to overlay natural and cultural resource mapping including floodplains, wetlands, topography, hydrology, and wildlife habitat, scenic byways and historic gravel roads, utility easements, and land ownership, and to identify the benefits of alternative schemes. This new database not only provides guidance for the linear parks and trail plan but guidance to other county efforts in directing new development. The plan is innovative in that it outlines recommendations for not only hiking and onstreet bike facilities, but mountain biking and equestrian trails, and blueways. It also links private (homeowners association) and public trails into a comprehensive network. In the face of rapid growth, the vision plan provides a framework for the county’s negotiation with developers through the proffer system, ensuring that public trails get built and at-risk landscapes protected in pace with the county’s development. Finally, incorporating staff recommendations, the landscape architects designed the initial first demonstration project.

Research for a County-Specific Toolkit

The planning effort called upon innovative techniques to engage and mobilize the community, and the landscape architects developed a toolkit to continually refine and improve the plan over time and moved very quickly – with the entire work effort completed in nine months.

In response to the County’s desired schedule and budget, the landscape architects engaged volunteers and user groups (during COVID) to crowdsource information on existing trails, filling a critical data gap and building connections to the planning process among future trail users and stewards.

Protecting natural resources was a key principle of the plan. The team collaborated with environmental stakeholders to understand the county’s environmental resources, challenges and opportunities, and how the LPAT plan can play an important role in protecting the county’s at-risk natural resources.

Leveraging county growth and development was another key principle. The team worked with planning and real estate staff in Loudoun and neighboring counties to understand the state’s unique proffer system, and the opportunity it presents to build out a network of trails and protected lands in pace with development. Although areas of the county are quite wealthy, others are lower-income and in need of economic development. The linear park and trail system also promotes economic development and tourism by linking key destinations and attracting mountain bikers and river rats from all over the metro area.

Gaining public buy-in was another key concept behind the planning effort. The team used virtual workshops, online surveys, and interactive online focus groups to share the county’s LPAT opportunities, collect resident feedback and vision, fine-tune the plan, identify priorities, and build public support.

Finding the Trail Corridors

Given the need for speed, the identification of low-hanging fruit for rapid implementation was key, often just in advance of pending development. “Threading the needle” thus became a key planning principle. Responding to the development environment was more complex because different development processes and regulatory regimes exist for the rapidly urbanizing east, and the rural horse country in the west. By building a county-specific mapping process following natural resource corridors, future development opportunities, and potential public and private partners, the county could both communicate a desired outcome in the face of pending development proposals and look long-term at the linear park and trail needs of the county.

Drawing outside the box, the landscape architects anticipated connections to the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Connector on the west and to adjacent trail networks in adjacent counties and states to the north, east and south.

Prioritizing Trail Projects

In response to the diverse socio-economic characteristics of the Loudoun County population and the need to prioritize improvements, the plan makes innovative use of Equity Investment Zones. This was the county’s first foray into addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion in its planning process, and developing appropriate vocabulary and methodologies that were specific to the community was a key component of the effort. Identification of Equity Investment Zones was based on Block Group-level demographic and environmental data, with criteria selected and weighted with county stakeholder input. These zones guided project prioritization. Other county departments now utilize the methodology to guide their investment decisions.

The team designed a prioritization matrix to score proposed projects based on weighted public values, with projects serving Equity Investment Zones getting the highest weight, followed by criteria such as filling critical trail gaps, connecting across county lines, promoting tourism, and serving residential neighborhoods.

Building and Maintaining the Linear Parks and Trails

It is not enough to merely create a physical plan – the system must be funded, implemented, and maintained over time. The landscape architects developed robust design guidelines with trail typologies that fit their context, materials and details that reflect user expertise gleaned during focus groups, and detailed, county-specific natural resource protection and management guidelines and metrics to ensure long-term impact. The landscape architects developed recommendations for integrating trail planning with the comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance and proffer system to leverage linear park and trail buildout and guide not only the park department, but county planning as well. They also identified public and private funding sources appropriate for each leg of the proposed trail, as well as the maintenance and deferred maintenance requirements for the system.

The landscape architects identified public and private organizational partners and county volunteer groups for ongoing coordination and trail buildout. They also made recommendations for fresh staff positions to coordinate the county’s LPAT efforts and oversee the ongoing maintenance and restoration of trails and protected natural resources, plus creation of an LPAT foundation to raise sustainable funds and support.

Helping the Public to Imagine Countywide Linear Parks and Trails

We have found that “what gets supported gets funded, and what gets funded gets built!” Therefore, a vital component of the plan is helping the public understand the potential of the system. The firm’s designers developed branding for the planning process, as well as the park system itself. They recommended new branding and communication tools and creation of community-led LPAT committees to make the trails visible and maintain project momentum.

To demonstrate the vision, the landscape architects developed a signature project. The conceptual plan included design of a 9.9-mile trail loop through varied natural and cultural landscapes, pieced together through a diversity of public and private partnerships, with recommendations of specific trailheads, park improvements and blueway connections – helping to build momentum and make the project and its potential real to the public.

A Plan With Results

Unanimously adopted by the County Commissioners, construction of the initial demonstration project of the Linear Park and Trail Plan is well underway!

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):

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