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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Planning Commission work session addresses residents' concerns on RSUs

New Hope Housing's newly renovated Mondloch Place in Alexandria is considered a model for RSUs. It provides 24 efficiency apartments to people transitioning out of long-term homelessness.
Several members of the Fairfax County Planning Commission indicated the rules for residential studio units (RSUs) should be tightened to protect low-density neighborhoods—a major concern of the Mason District Council (MDC) of Community Associations.

Fairfax County is proposing an amendment to the zoning ordinance to permit RSUs, small, no-bedroom efficiency units, as a solution to the scarcity of affordable housing. Eighty percent of the units in an RSU project would have to be rented to people with incomes less than 60 percent of the area median.

During the commission’s second work session on RSUs Oct. 2, Fairfax County zoning official Donna Pesto answered questions submitted in advance and clarified issues raised by commissioners and by individuals who attended the meeting.

MDC had sent a list of 23 questions to the Planning Commission, many of them stemming from discussions on a resolution approved by the MDC membership that urges the county to prohibit RSUs in neighborhoods zoned less than R-20 and ban single-family houses from being converted to multifamily housing.MDC is also circulating a petition highlighting its concerns.

While Pesto said it would be unlikely that a multifamily RSU building would be developed in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, it became clear at the meeting that additional safeguards need to be included in the ordinance to prevent that from happening.

Continued outreach

Due to widespread concern about RSUs, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 24 approved  the Planning Commission’s proposal to defer a previously scheduled Nov. 20 hearing on RSUs until February 2014 to provide more time for citizen outreach.

The commissioners had received many complaints about the lack of publicity about RSUs and complaints that county seems to be on a fast track toward approval. As a result, “the commission extended the process and encouraged additional outreach to make sure citizens have an opportunity to comment,” said commissioner Timothy Sergeant (at-large).

Planning Commission Chair Peter Murphy (Springfield) appointed Sergeant to a new Residential Studios Committee to conduct public meetings, along with Janyce Hedetniemi (at-large), John Litzenberger Jr. (Sully), Kenneth Lawrence (Providence), and Nell Hurley (Braddock).

The committee will meet on Oct. 28, Nov. 20, Dec. 9, Jan. 6, and Jan. 22. All of the meetings will start at 7 p.m. and all will take place at the Fairfax County Government Center, except the Nov. 20 session, which will be at the Herrity Building.


During the work session last night, Pesto said the reason the proposal includes RSUs in lower-density residential areas is because the zoning ordinance already sets a precedent by allowing special exceptions for certain multifamily developments—such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities, group homes, and fraternity houses—in those areas. “As part of the comprehensive review we go through,” she said, “we have to evaluate against similarities and differences of what’s already there.”

Sergeant asked Pesto to clarify provisions in the staff report that call for the design of RSU buildings to be “harmonious with neighboring properties.”

“Just because RSUs are allowed in a certain zoning district doesn’t mean they would be allowed on every block in that district,” Pesto said. These facilities would still have to meet zoning provisions related to mass and bulk of the proposed building, the location and height of fences, open space, drainage, parking, and other things “that help define compatibility,” she said.

The staff report presents two options on converting a single-family house to an RSU building—one option would allow it, the other would not. Even if allowed, Pesto said, it would not be easy to do.

Transforming a house into multifamily housing would require meeting all sorts of regulations on things like firewalls, hallway width, and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said, and the project would “still be subject to compatibility factors.” When asked whether a townhouse could be converted to an RSU, she said, “I don’t think physically that is ever going to be a possibility.”

In response to questions about services provided to tenants, Pesto said there no requirements that RSU buildings have to include any services, such as a common room, computer room, or office. 

Nell Hurley (Braddock) said if the tenants have mental health needs, are coming out of homelessness, or recently released from prison, there should be an on-site manager. Pesto said the ordinance doesn’t address services—RSU developments are a “housing product, not a program”—but those needs could be addressed when a proposal is reviewed.

Access to transit

While the RSU proposal calls for RSUs to be restricted to “collector streets” and major roads and be close to transit facilities, several people who commented urged those rules to be strengthened.

Pesto acknowledged that this provision could be modified or waived by the BoS when reviewing a specific proposal. Commissioner James Hart (at-large) said the ordinance be revised to prohibit waivers on access to transit. John Litzenberger Jr. (Sully) suggested RSUs only be allowed within a quarter-mile from a Metro station, noting it isn’t practical for commuters to take long bus rides to a Metro stop.

According to Sergeant, many commenters had concerns about enforcement to ensure the RSU rules aren’t abused, because building code violations involving issues like boardinghouses aren’t being strictly enforced.

“We hope the provision of affordable housing would alleviate some of these concerns,” Pesto said. Also, she noted, the BoS has the authority to rescind approval of a special exception. She said the property manager would be responsible for monitoring leases for RSUs and verifying tenants’ incomes.

Pesto said, “in terms of occupancy, these units are intended to be single-person.” The proposal, however, allows up to three tenants per unit.

When members of the audience were given a chance to speak, Falls Church resident Doris Ray addressed the commission on behalf of the ENDependence Center, an organization that represents people with disabilities. She questioned how RSUs would serve the needs of people with disabilities because the units would be too small for someone in a wheelchair or scooter to maneuver around comfortably.

Among the speakers from Mason, Carol Turner urged the commission to exclude RSUs from areas zoned less dense than R-20 and make sure they are close to transit. MDC Chair Mollie Loeffler urged the commission to prohibit mcmansions in single-family neighborhoods from being converted to RSUs and raised concerns about where tenants would park. Pesto said the proposal calls for one parking space per unit, but the BoS could reduce that if requested by the applicant.

Arrogant attitude

Jon Clark, a resident of the Annandale Acres neighborhood in Mason, questioned why the proposed ordinance bans RSUs from properties that are not connected to the county water and sewer systems. He later speculated that this provision was included to keep RSUs out of affluent communities like Great Falls.

Following the first Planning Commission work session on RSUs last week, Clark was so disgusted by the “arrogant attitude” of Commissioner Janet Hall (Mason), that he sent a letter to Mason Supervisor Penny Gross asking her to remove Hall from the commission. During the Sept. 26 meeting, Hall made a comment indicating Clark was mainly concerned about keeping “the unwashed” out of his neighborhood.

According to Clark, Hall not only “proudly and theatrically showed her disgust for citizens’ right to petition their government for a redress of grievances, she ridiculed what are very common, very real, frequently voiced and entirely appropriate concerns of the citizens for preservation of the character, safety, and utility of their neighborhoods.” As of Oct. 1, Clark had not received a response from Gross. Hall was present but did not speak at the Oct. 2 meeting.


  1. Thank you Jon Clark! Mason District deserves to be represented by someone who takes under consideration all citizens' appropriate concerns and not disregard them with disgust.

  2. "John Litzenberger Jr. (Sully) suggested RSUs only be allowed within a quarter-mile from a Metro station, noting it isn’t practical for commuters to take long bus rides to a Metro stop. "

    Ha! lots of people in Fairfax do that already.

  3. While it was undiplomatic for Ms Hall to say what she did, many of the objections to RSUs in lower density areas do not exactly specify the harm they would bring, and do seem to reflect a generalized fear of the impact of low income people on property values. Which is just a more polite way of saying it's fear of the "unwashed" Whether or not that is a fair characterization of Mr Clark's position, is difficult to say in the absence of a transcript of Mr Clark's comments that Ms Hall was responding to.

  4. Does anyone really know the definition for a RSU?


  5. Loretta Prencipe10/5/13, 9:32 AM

    The issue boils down to one word: density. The proposed RSU ZOA creates a "bonus" density - which is actually a fiction, allowing the County to ignore density impacts of an RSU use. It's not hard to imagine a RSU with 60 units housing 120 people with less than 60 parking spaces sited on church grounds in the middle of neighborhood or sited at the main ingress/egress of a neighborhood because that's on a collector road.

    This density fiction, the vague language of the proposed ZOA, the broad discretion given to the BoS (with significant campaign contributions from developers) and the lack of confidence in the public process has led us to this fight. Let's also be clear, the County has worked with advocates for 10 years, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this -- and now is "giving" the public 5 months. 5 months after 10 years is just throwing the public a bone.

    Residents in many older neighborhoods believe BoS members are beholden to developers and that we are paying the price for "management by special exception." The residents are struggling daily with the County's failure to take a comprehensive view of density impacts. Rather the County has focused on Tysons and managed (or mismanged) density one special exception at a time. What we have is infill development and overcrowded homes and apartments.

    Neighborhoods have to fight every time a special exception appln comes through. Neighborhoods have to fight for traffic control, for no parking signs, for zoning code enforcement. When will the BoS stand up for neighborhoods?

    1. Absolutely spot on. And while we need to continue the fight, we must remember that the very weapon in our arsenal is the ballot box.

    2. " What we have is infill development and overcrowded homes and apartments." The overcrowded apts are ones that were built decades ago. We have overcrowded housing because density limits prevent the construction of new housing.

  6. Mason district has been totally neglected unless a developer wants to do something to a piece of property. Then unless neighbors discover early in the process there won't be much time for citizen input. Once neighbors find out, they're already facing the Planning Commission hearing. Each Planning Commissioner usually does what their supervisor wants (because they were appointed by the supervisor). The other commissioners follow what that district wants to do because it's not in their district and they don't want their fellow commissioners to go against them when they want to do something. It's the same process through the Board of Supervisors. That is our current regular process for land development.

    For RSU decisions it would be much easier to quickly move along. The developer who wants to put in a RSU first goes to the supervisor; the supervisor decides whether or not to go forward with the project. If the supervisor likes it, he/she will take it to the other Board of Supervisors, to tell them it's a wonderful idea and it should be done by special exception (they have the power through the RSU amendment). An RSU plan does go through a Planning Commission and Board hearings but it's really too late for citizens to make any difference. The Planning Commissioners and the Board will make some minor changes, but in the end it will be approved by the Board-- great government by the people and for the people. This RSU amendment must not be approved at all--it gives the Board too much power.

    1. LIke I said this is a "Really Stupid Unertaking"
      The supervisors have lost their way and are turning Fairfax into a slum. Look around: cars parked on lawns, litter everywhere, no pride in property ownership.

      This place has turned into a dump under the current leadership. BOS go to Arlington and learn a thing or two on how to make a county thrive instead of die!

    2. Yeah, neighborhoods look like that because there is no affordable housing left, so they double- and triple-up w/family and friends. RSU are a step in the right direction - don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!

  7. Supervisor Gross gets over 2/3 of her campaign contributions from developers and those in the real estate industry.

  8. In response to the request from Jon Clark that Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross remove Janet Hall as the Mason representative on the Planning Commission, Gross said that since Hall was appointed in 1995 by Gross’ predecessor Tina Trapnell, she “has dedicated countless hours serving in her position, providing guidance and recommendation on planning-related policy changes and land use applications.”

    “Planning and land use can be divisive at times, and the Planning Commission meetings can also be very contentious,” Gross states in an email to Clark. “Although Commissioner Hall’s tenure as Planning Commissioner exceeds mine as an elected official, I have found her decision-making to be objective, thorough, and beneficial to the interests of Mason District residents. You may disagree with her style, but Commissioner Hall has served in a manner that promotes equitable land use and growth decisions, with a proven historical record in the Mason District.”

    “Planning commissioners serve four-year terms in a position independent of the Board of Supervisors or the Department of Planning and Zoning,” Gross says. Hall was reappointed in 2010 for a term that expires in December 2014.

  9. And politicians wonder why people hate and distrust them.