As we pass through the pre-election doldrums of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, we should all understand that both the current and the prospective County Board are in the process of reducing our involvement in critical land use decisions from community planning to project approval consideration. We don’t yet know if Democratic Board candidate Walter Alcorn, almost certainly Hunter Mill District’s next supervisor, will be swept up in this drive despite his campaign commitment to involve the community. (His website promises to “Engage the Community to Plan and Approve Projects that Make Sense.”)
This drive to accelerate county land use decisions in part by reducing public involvement began with Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova. The Board’s frenzy for rapid, unfettered urban development goes back to at least 2012. In a report on a February 2012 Board retreat, the Washington Post noted,
“County officials outlined the need to rewrite the rules that govern land-use decisions, an effort backed by Bulova. She said that the current process, which allows for intense deliberation and wide public involvement, was better suited to the days when much of the county was farmland.
Today, Bulova said, Fairfax is a more urban and densely populated suburb and requires a more flexible approach that encourages redevelopment, particularly in areas targeted for intense growth, but preserves public engagement.”
“Preserves public engagement” is what one calls lip service that meets the legally required minimum public involvement in land use decisions.
With that encouragement, the Board proceeded “to rewrite the rules that govern land-use decisions.” So far, the county has made the following changes:
Fairfax Forward. This Board planning initiative began shortly after the Board’s retreat. The initiative aimed to correct what was viewed as a too rigid parcel-specific development nominations process that only marginally involved the community.
Yet, as the Annandale blog reported, “A staff report on Fairfax Forward issued in February (2013) ‘was disturbingly silent on several critical avenues of citizen and community involvement in reviewing land use proposals,’ states (the Providence District Council) PDC’s comments. “Without amended language to ensure full and meaningful community review, PDC fears that Fairfax Forward could be construed in a way that reduces, rather than expands, community involvement in charting Fairfax’s future.” In 2016, the county staff acknowledged, “(o)utstanding questions about community participation in (the) process,” but claimed the new system provided a “(c)learer process for citizen participation.” No changes to improve opportunities for community involvement were added.
“Minor Modifications. And then came “zMod,” the county’s ongoing process to re-write the county’s zoning ordinances. In its first step, zMod consultant Clarion Group developed a “streamlined” process for handling “minor” changes in zoning decisions that the Board approved in 2017. From a resident’s perspective, there are several points that stand out:
- There is no requirement that the county notify the community or even adjoining property owners about proposed zoning changes, only the district supervisor.
- There is no Planning Commission review, much less a public hearing, on the proposed changes, only a staff review.
- In the Reston Planned Residential Community (PRC), the Board of Supervisors may approve, without a public hearing, proposed development changes, including dropping recreation uses to the minimum legally required, eliminating “ineffective or obsolete” technological or service proffers (Why would a developer proffer “ineffective or obsolete” technology or services—and why would the county accept them?), and changing architectural design.
All these changes are not supposed to “materially affect” the proposed development, but, of course, there is no definition of “materially affect?”
In short, the community is cut out of any opportunity for contribution to—even of knowledge of-- potentially important changes in a standing zoning decision concerning the development of a Reston property. Anything done without full public scrutiny is incredibly dangerous.
The 2016 Gartner Report. To bolster its Fairfax Forward initiative, the Board engaged yet another consultant in 2015, Gartner Group, to conduct “an independent review of current procedures and processes, effectiveness and efficiencies to identify opportunities for improvement which can further customer service and improve operational execution.” The “customers” are “land use development customers, from home owners to large-scale developers.” There is little room for residents or communities, who comprise more than one million people and hundreds of thousands of homeowners, in the considerations of this report.
Gartner’s final report is all about achieving Goal #3 of the county’s 2015 strategic economic development plan: “Improve the speed, consistency, and predictability of the Development Review Process.” Nothing in the report considers the impact of the plans—whether community or specific development plans--on the communities in which the development is to occur. Moreover, the proposed processes pay only lip service to public participation, limiting them to state-mandated requirements and the minimal limits of political propriety.
zMOD Zoning Ordinance Re-write. The major assignment Clarion Group is tackling is a complete re-write of the county’s zoning ordinance, including streamlining processes, without making substantive changes in the ordinance. Clarion presented its first draft of the substance of the proposed re-write on July 1, 2019. There are, in fact, substantive changes laid out in the draft’s summary covering accessory uses, electrical vehicle charging, and much more. (We strongly encourage you to read at least the summary of this draft report where the key changes are outlined.) On the other hand, there is no discussion of the process by which one legislates changes to that ordinance, including the role of public input.
Among the changes permitted in PRCs, including Reston, the zMOD draft newly permits new “live-work development” and “stacked townhouse” uses and excludes “community swim, tennis, and other recreational uses.” These beg questions regarding what the DRB will think of stacked townhouses and the future of that county regional recreation center that is supposed to be built in Reston. Also, the proposal to not allow recreational facilities puts Reston’s two golf courses in jeopardy. Certainly there will be much more to come, and we doubt that much of it will be to Reston’s advantage or promote its residents’ involvement.
It is vital that all Reston residents understand the proposed PRC zoning ordinance changes and their implications for our community. There is much to be concerned about. More broadly, we need to understand what changes, if any, are on the docket for the process for developing, vetting, and approving PRC zoning changes. It was only because of a huge community effort involving literally hundreds, even thousands, of Restonians that we were able to postpone indefinitely consideration of the recent Reston PRC zoning ordinance amendment that would have allowed unconscionable increases in our population.
One encouraging sign is that activists from all over the county are now organizing. Citizens from ALL Fairfax County districts are becoming increasingly alarmed at the county’s rush to approve development everywhere with reduced citizen review. The 2016 Gartner report has been read and raises huge concerns. It seems to be THE blueprint designed for and by developers at the expense of true public input.
Any county effort to reduce community involvement in the zoning amendment process will only make it that much more difficult for us to stop truly bad county decisions that would undermine the goals and principles of our master planned community.