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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Annandale community leaders question benefit of new planning approach

An infill development going up on Lincolnia Road.
Fairfax County officials say their proposal to replace the Area Plans Review (APR) system for amending the county’s Comprehensive Plan with a new approach will increase opportunities for community input.

Community leaders in the Annandale/Mason area, however, are doubtful that the new system will have much of an impact in curbing higher-density infill developments in older, established neighborhoods.

The new model for comprehensive planning, known as “Fairfax Forward,” will be “more responsive, more timely, and more inclusive,” Marianne Gardner, director of the Planning Division in the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning, said at a June 26 meeting of the Mason District Land Use Committee.

Jennifer Lai, of the Planning Division, summarized some of the feedback from residents at community meetings last year and an online survey on the current APR process: It’s no longer community driven; the structure is too rigid; there’s no process for countywide planning; and it’s too reactive to parcel-specific proposals.

More community input

The new approach for reviewing changes to the Comprehensive Plan would address those concerns, Lai said. It would expand community participation, engage individual communities earlier in the process; be more logical, more flexible, and more holistic; and put more of a focus on plan monitoring and maintenance.

As a first step toward achieving those goals, the county last month published State of the Plan, an evaluation of county planning activities during the period 2000-10. A revised and digitized county map was approved by the Board of Supervisors June 19, and the county is creating a plan amendment database.

Planning staff will be doing outreach over the next few months to educate the public about the Fairfax Forward process. There will be public hearings in November and December, and it is expected to be implemented in early 2013.

It all seemed a bit confusing at the meeting last night, and several people at the MDLUC asked whether the new procedure would be helpful to neighborhoods opposed to higher-density infill developments.

Lai indicated developers would still bring their proposals to the supervisor in whose jurisdiction the property is located, and there would still be some negotiations involving the developer, supervisor, and county planning staff.

So will there still be out-of-turn plan amendments?, wondered Carol Turner, co-president of the Ravenwood Park Citizens Association. That’s what happened when the county allowed a higher-density housing project to go forward on Peace Valley Lane rather than waiting for the regularly scheduled APR process.

Janet Hall, the Mason representative on the Planning Commission, said situations like that are extremely rare. “Only five out-of-turn plan amendments were approved in Mason during the 18 years since I’ve been here,” she said.

Kathleen McDermott, a land use attorney who has fought several infill developments, asked what the planners meant when they said the new process will allow for more “flexibility.” Lai said the new system will encourage “ideas from the community, not just ideas from developers.” Still, she said, what plans for development will go forward “will depend on what the supervisor thinks.”

Giving citizens more of a voice sounds good, but even if the MDLUC pays attention to citizen’s concerns, “I don’t feel like we’re going to be represented,” said Kate Sriwardene, president of the Wilburdale Civic Association in Annandale and land use chair of the Mason District Council. “Penny Gross is not listening, the Planning Commission is not listening, the Board of Supervisors is not listening,” she said. 

Supervisors favor developers

If the community opposes a developer’s plan, “it’s hard to say” what would happen, Gardner said. “We want to work toward consensus. It’s impossible to say who would carry more weight.” Ultimately, “it’s still going to be the supervisor’s choice.” Even if the community’s voice is heard, “there is no guarantee” that the Board of Supervisors will go along with what they want.

Local residents know how an infill development—and the increased stormwater runoff it will bring—will affect their neighborhood, Sriwardene said. “But when the county stands to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in proffers, the county will side with developers.”

McDermott called the new approach “impenetrable, incomprehensible, and disjointed.” Despite all the talk about citizen engagement, it isn’t likely to be of much help to people who oppose infill developments in their neighborhoods, she said. At least the APR system has a set schedule and a routine for reviewing the Comprehensive Plan; that would no longer be the case.

So why change it? McDermott speculates it’s because Fairfax County is running out of land, and the only options left for developers are infill projects. To pack the most houses into the small parcels of land available, developers are turning more and more to PDH (planned development housing) zoning, which allows higher densities. That means more rezoning requests and more proffers for the county.


  1. Please have Ms Gardner make any future presentations. Last night's presentation was mumbled and confusing. Ms Lai was unable to provide meaningful answers to questions. Painful to watch.

  2. Should we really waste everyone's time pretending to solicit and consider citizen input when, as has already been said, developers trump neighborhoods all the time?

  3. Such a great synopsis. I felt like there was a lot of antagonism with the crowd and the Land Use Committee. It also seems that the County has nice, well-meaning folks doing things to set up this "new system" to please the supervisors (their bosses?) - but all in all these young folks are just not hip to what is actually happening out of their cubicle. Just my take.

  4. A very well-balanced article on the meeting last night. It should also be noted that there were repeated requests by citizens last night to actually be informed as to when meetings and infill developments are coming (through e-mails for instance). The County seems unable to provide even the most basic communication with groups such as the Mason District Council of Citizen Associations, who are willing to spread the word about how the County plans to communitcate more with its citizens. THe response that was given by one of the county land use members was they they could not rely on the MDC to get get the word out. In fact Janet Hall, the chair of the COunty's Land Use Board, was openly hostile to the Land Use Chair of the Mason District COuncil when she questioned the need for citizens to be educated by the County when the citizens have been crystal clear about their opposition to planned development housing/dense infill developments. The bottom line is that the County's big new plan is a matter of semantics and a way to further their infill agenda in order to gain lucrative cash proffers from developers and significant tax increases on all the new houses they are allowing.