|Neighborhood leaders pack a meeting room at Peace Lutheran Church in Lincolnia to learn strategies for fighting infill development|
Up to now, community groups were on their own as they saw vacant lots within their neighbors slowly eaten up by new houses, while county leaders encouraged a pro-developer agenda.
For the first time, several neighborhood groups in the Annandale area are coming together to share strategies for fighting back. Dozens of people came to a meeting last night sponsored by the Mason District Council of Community Associations to learn about the experiences of the Ravenwood Park and Wilburdale citizens associations.
The Ravenwood Park Citizen Association (RPCA) has been fighting a development on a 1.89-acre property at 3236 Peace Lane since 2005.
Zoning change requests are supposed to be handled as part of the Area Plans Review (APR) process that take place when the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan is updated every five years. When a proposal for townhouses at Peace Lane was proposed in 2005, Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross convinced the Board of Supervisors to agree to waive the APR to expedite rezoning to allow greater density, said RPCA Co-president Carol Turner.
The RPCA succeeded in fighting back this proposal by having “mass attendance at a zoning meeting,” Turner said. By then the economy had soured, and the developer withdrew the plan for townhouses. But the developer came back in 2010 with a proposal for eight single-family houses and a change from residential zoning to PDH (planned development housing) zoning.
Unlike residential zoning, which allows a certain number of houses per acre, PDH zoning allows developers to be creative. By having some open space, they can stuff a lot of houses into a small area and have tiny lot sizes. It also calls for the formation of a homeowners association (HOA) to maintain the common areas.
The Mason Land Use Committee will consider the Peace Valley Lane proposal Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Mason District Government Center. The County Plan Commission will have a hearing on it Feb. 9. It then goes to the Board of Supervisors. “Whenever the board hears a proposal to amend the county’s comprehensive plan, the board usually defers to the supervisor who proposed it,” said RPCA Co-president John Iekel.
“Mass attendance is very important” at these meetings, Turner said. RPCA had to file a Freedom of Information request to find out what the county staff recommended for the Peace Lane property, Turner said. The report is “very muddled” but it indicates that a developer could put eight houses on a property that is less than two acres.
The RPCA will send a rebuttal to the Land Use Committee charging the project should have gone through the APR process, which would require a more rigorous review of storm water and soil integrity issues. “These brand-new gigantic houses will have to be connected to a sewer system built in 1957,” she said.
Access is also a huge issue for RPCA. Peace Valley Lane is interrupted, Iekel said, and the community unanimously opposes having it connect to Route 7. Nearby townhouse communities,Vinewood and Lafayette Park, have joined RPCA in opposing the infill development because of concern about more traffic congestion.
“We’re all united in opposing greater density,” Iekel said. “We want to follow the county’s Comprehensive Plan which affirms the objective to “protect and preserve established neighborhoods.”
The Wilburdale community in Annandale is fighting an infill development on property owned by Ana Cornejo at 4954 Sunset Lane, which is also proposed for PDH rezoning. This type of zoning “gives no consideration to existing neighborhoods,” said Kate Sriwardene, president of the Wilburdale Civic Association. Under PDH zoning, “there are no lot width requirements. You can have townhouses. There are no limits on what you stuff in there.”
The landowner, Ana Cornejo, has two houses on the property in question. She wants to knock one down and build two more.
Stormwater is a major issue for Wilburdale, which was built in 1952. “The Cornejo property is on a hill, and the water dumps into our backyards,” Sriwardene said. Having a PDH means “four homeowners will be responsible for maintaining storm water retention ditches that don’t affect them; they affect us.”
The developer has assured the community that the county will step in if the storm water system fails, but the county doesn’t have to.
Wilburdale resident Frank Parrotta said the developer’s plans to put in a retention system consisting of an eight-foot-deep ditch filled with crushed stone won’t be effective. The stormwater swale through Wilburdale already overflows whenever there are heavy rains he said, showing the audience photos of residents’ backyards turned into lakes. That system would be overwhelmed by more development.
“Anything you can do to delay drives up the developer’s costs,” Parrotta advised.
“Mcmansions are bad enough,” leading to trash pile-ups and overcrowding, Sriwardene said. Infill development with a PDH “will destroy the character of our neighborhood. It will destroy our property values.” She is concerned the new houses would be poorly maintained, leading to further deterioration. She also complained that it wasn’t appropriate for Gross to waive Cornejo’s $28,000 rezoning fee. “We are not being served by the county,” she said.
The Cornejo proposal will go to the Planning Commission in May and will be reviewed by the Mason District Land Use Committee sometime before that.
Kathleen McDermott, a real estate attorney who lives on Sunset Lane and successfully fought off an earlier attempt to develop the Cornejo property, said developers proposing infill housing have several tools: conventional rezoning, like a change from R-2 (two houses per acre) to R-5; rezoning through changes in the Comprehensive Plan; and the current trend, changing to PDH zoning.
They used to have another tool—getting the Board of Supervisors to waive the lot width limit requirement. They can’t do that anymore, due to a court ruling last April, that found it violates Dillon’s Rule, which limits county authority under state law. That ruling, while a win for the Wilburdale community, seems to be leading to more requests for PDH rezoning requests.
McDermott said there aren’t any statistics on how often the PDH zoning is being used, but she believes it’s on the rise. “The supervisor sets the tone in a district,” she said. “We’re finding in Mason that we have a very pro-developer supervisor.”
“You have to understand the zoning ordinances, and you have to analyze the zoning application and staff report,” McDermott advised the audience. Sometimes you can find things that were done wrong, she said.
“Don’t assume the staff or Board of Supervisors know the law,” she said. “They might not, or they might be trying to push the envelope.” Find out whether they have followed all the procedural requirements on such things as notification to the public. “If you can find them violating state law, or the Dillon Rule, then you are golden.”
When you appear at a hearing, “don’t just stand up and speak,” she said. File a written report for the record, too. “Atmospherics are important. Is the applicant lying? Call attention to that. Whenever you see an inaccuracy, highlight it.”
Fred Costello, chair Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations’ Land Use Committee, urged neighborhood groups to do a lot of analytic work. “If you look at financial incentives, you’ll find developers want to make a profit. The Department of Planning and Zoning needs more rezoning cases or they are out of work.”
The county claims more residential development brings in more tax revenue, Costello said. But more residents require more county services, and actually put more of a burden on the budget—for things like emergency services and schools—which results in higher taxes.
The Fairfax Federation passed a resolution in December opposing PDH rezoning for infill development that would hurt the character of neighborhoods.
Bill Barfield, chair of the Braddock District Council of Community Associations, urged the neighborhood leaders to “lock arms and tell your supervisor what they need to hear.”
“We need to join together,” Sriwardene said. “This is not hopeless. We can make a difference.”