main banner

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stop the ‘one-size-fits-all’ zoning proposal

Tysons, where high-density development makes sense.
This opinion piece by Terry Maynard, co-chair of the Reston 20/20 Committee, was published May 11 in the Reston Connection. We are republishing it here because the zoning ordinance amendment under consideration will have a huge impact on Fairfax County’s redevelopment areas, including Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, and Seven Corners.

In the next few months, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors plans to approve a “one-size-fits-all” zoning ordinance amendment that would guide redevelopment throughout the urbanizing areas of the county for decades. It wouldn’t be too bad if the one size was a “medium” or “large,” but the board—increasingly desperate for new tax revenues from more development—has chosen to go for XXL. 

Specifically, the county’s draft zoning ordinance amendment proposes all of the county’s 20 transit station areas (TSAs), community redevelopment districts (CRDs), and commercial business centers (CBCs) be allowed a floor-area ratio (FAR) of up to 5.0. 

So what does FAR 5.0 really mean? Literally, it means that a developer can build structures with floor space that is five times greater than the area of the parcel on which they sit. In the real world, it means that developers can build up these Fairfax County areas to a density that is greater than any that exists anywhere in Northern Virginia.

Even the massively developed Rosslyn Metro core only has a density of FAR 3.6 according to Arlington County, although the twin towers above the Rosslyn station are at FAR 10.0.

In general, the FAR 5.0 density zoning ordinance may be appropriate for some locations, such as a part of one of Reston’s transit station areas. Reston’s new master plan calls for allowing FAR 4.0 (plus a bonus of FAR 0.5) for the small area immediately north of Reston’s Town Center Metro station. But the draft amendment makes no distinction in allowable density at the station and at the half-mile perimeter of the station area where it should taper substantially. 

Moreover, Reston’s other two station areas and virtually every other Metro station area in the county, such as the West Falls Church and Van Dorn station areas, are neither planned for nor could they reasonably accommodate density anywhere approaching FAR 5.0. Unlike the town centers in Reston and Tysons, these places have no planned aspirations to become regional economic centers with huge population and employment increases.

Even worse is the notion of redeveloping the county’s CBCs and CRDs at a density of up to FAR 5.0.  The redevelopment of these areas is almost exclusively meant to revitalize their community economic viability, not to have a broader county or regional impact. [Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, and Seven Corners are CRDs.]

Most important, these areas have no walking access to Metrorail, which is the key ingredient in allowing high density in TSAs. At best, they will have bus service to link them with Metro, and they certainly can’t absorb the tens of thousands of additional autos on their local streets without massive and costly improvements. 

Worse yet, the residents of all these areas will probably have to pay a share of the cost for the new transportation improvements this intense development will create through new “transportation tax service districts.” These needs will include a new internal “grid of streets,” improvements to existing roads, and better bus transit.

Reston is facing this situation now as the county is proposing an added local real estate tax of $.025 to $.035 per $100 valuation. One version extends the tax district to all of Reston although only about one-quarter of Reston along the Dulles Corridor is in the TSAs where the road work and development would occur.

Elsewhere, in southern Fairfax County, a comparable proposal could be a tax district along Richmond Highway from Alexandria to Ft. Belvoir for roads built or improved only in the six small CRD areas designated for redevelopment along that route. There is no reason the county wouldn’t apply this warped you-pay-for-it reasoning everywhere in these redevelopment zones.

Tysons already has such a transportation tax district. The tax rate there started at $.04 per $100 valuation in 2013, but increased to $.05 the following year. No doubt Tysons’ rate will continue to rise (in addition to the increased taxes from higher valuations on property there), and the proposed Reston “teaser rate” will almost certainly increase quickly soon after the Board of Supervisors approves it. 

The insult to local communities is that the county’s explicit intent is to increase traffic congestion in these redeveloped areas. Yes, the county’s plan for all this transportation tax spending is to increase congestion explicitly to discourage people from driving in, out, or through these areas.

The goal for these “urbanizing” areas is to increase driving delays at each intersection by up to 50 seconds from current county standards under its new “urban guidelines.” Four traffic lights will mean more than three minutes of added delay, even for people just passing through these areas, during the rush period whether on Reston Parkway or Richmond Highway. 

Adding injury to insult, all these funds would be used to subsidize the profits of the local corporate developers who need the new and improved transportation capabilities to make ever larger profits on their new development. Residents would not receive one dollar in financial or any other benefit from these new taxes. 

By our calculation, the developers in Reston’s TSAs will likely make more than $50 billion in profits in 2016 dollars over the 40-year time frame and yet Reston residents are being asked to contribute about one-seventh of the $2.6 billion needed for roadway improvements using county costing assumptions. That translates into more than $8,800 per household over 40 years with moderate inflation.

Alternatively, the developers could pay for all these roadway improvements from their $50 billion in profits and still—by our calculation—realize a 20 percent return on their $34 billion investment. We would anticipate comparable results elsewhere in the county.

The county’s response to the above analysis is that the zoning ordinance amendment proposes to limit the allowable zoning density to the level allowed in the district’s plan and “other recommendations in the adopted comprehensive plan, in furtherance of the purpose and intent of this district.” 

What could be wrong with that?

First, “other recommendations” is a good-sized hole through which to drive higher development density; it has been done routinely with less of a legal loophole.

Second, some of the area plans affected by this zoning proposal [including Annandale] do not have a FAR density limit at all. They are “form based” plans that describe what the redeveloped area should look like.

Third, Virginia’s “Dillon Rule” law prohibits any reduction in zoning authority once given; that density becomes a “by right” authority of the landowners. So an overly ambitious zoning decision mistake once made cannot be undone. The opportunity is all for the developers; the risk is all for the residents.

Most important, with the county’s new “Fairfax Forward” Comprehensive Plan amendment process—which may be better called “Fast Forward”—the barriers to increasing an area or project plan’s density are virtually non-existent. The state-mandated Comprehensive Plan, which covers all areas of the county in some depth, provides only a vision and guide to each area’s development that, unlike the zoning ordinance, is a policy document and not legally binding. 

The Board of Supervisor’s goal in the Fairfax Forward process is to expedite the amendment of existing local plans with high-density plan amendment proposals, which means limiting and controlling community input. 

There will be no more time-consuming task forces, charrettes, workshops, endless public meetings, and other such community input mechanisms that the county has used previously in its Area Plan Reviews to revamp community-wide plans. And the approval of project-specific plan amendments will be even more tightly controlled. Still, the Fairfax Forward process documentation reads like a civics lesson in public participation, including an extensive “Public Participation Toolkit” no less, but public participation is schedule-driven, mechanistic, and generally ignored. 

Once the plan amendment has been approved, the ensuing legally binding high-density zoning approval by the same actors will soon follow. Suddenly a TSA, CBC, or CRD area or project originally planned at FAR 3.0 through the old process becomes planned for FAR 5.0 even if no mass transit is anywhere around. As a result, the zoning amendment will be easily approved and construction will begin.

We strongly urge all of the county’s citizens associations, homeowners associations, neighborhood civic groups, and any local entities that might remotely be affected by this proposed zoning ordinance amendment to communicate with their supervisor their disapproval of this one-size-fits-all approach to zoning. 

It will only increase local congestion, environmental damage, lead to higher taxes, disrupt viable neighborhoods and communities, and provide billions of dollars in county tax welfare to already highly profitable development corporations. 

And please take the time to testify this zoning proposal. The Planning Commission is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. on May 25, and the Board of Supervisors hearing is set for 4 p.m.on June 21. Both hearings are at the Fairfax County Government Center.  


  1. I'm not an expert, but I disagree with a lot of this piece, which is a lot fear mongering based on the assumption that we should and will drive a car everywhere. The bottom line is that density is bad only when it means cars. If you make a place car-friendly and bike and pedestrian-hostile, nobody will want to be there and it will suck. As a resident of Annandale, I can say that I would very much welcome a much denser downtown area. It might be exactly what we need in order to make the area appealing to younger people - provided people can walk and bike safely to meet their basic needs. Instead we have a bunch of older residents and Chamber of Commerce members who oppose any attempt to make Annandale a more livable place through measures like bike lanes and reductions in space dedicated to driving fast and storing your car (otherwise known as parking). Let's get out of this mindset that we have to be able to drive large metal boxes as fast as we want, just to get to the stores that are within a mile or two of where we live. Make a place dense and walkable, and the money will flow in. Why not in Annandale? Get rid of the storage depots and huge parking lots, plant more trees and create protected bike lanes and more people might consider moving here.

    1. The problem is that it includes CRDs (Annadale, 7corners, Baileys) that have limited access to transit. Increased density is fine and needed, but 5 FAR is Rosslyn level numbers and once on the books any developer can plow through zoning as a right or sue the county. All this without public input into redevelopment. I dont think you want a skyscrapper next to a single family neighborhood.

    2. 1. Seven Corners and Baileys will be served by the BRT line proposed in Envision Route 7. And Seven Corners is pretty close to the EFC metro station.
      2. Annandale has extensive local and express bus service, some of the best in the County, and could potentially be served by BRT on Rte 236.
      3. Walkable density, with good design, reduces car trips not only with transit use, but with walking (for non commute trips especially) and biking.
      4. This still does not legally establish FAR of 5 by right. Individual district plans and form based codes would still need to be modified.

    3. As for Rosslyn, while 5 is by right there, the Arlington County Board is empowered to approve upto a FAR of 10 when certain specified criteria are met. In effect Rosslyn has a FAR of 10, but with a process to enable the County to bargain for community benefits. So when you look at new construction in Rosslyn, do not imagine that is FAR 5 development.

    4. To Anon 1:23: Are you buying into the myth that Millennials don't drive cars and want to live in high density multifamily homes? Check out this National Association of Realtors report: . Clearly, by about 5 to 1, nearly all of us want to live in single family homes. When you drive look around. Do you see millennials. They buy and drive cars like the rest of us. Do they walk and ride bikes? Probably less than us older people in my experience. These high density housing projects are for people who can,t afford what they really want. Is that what they mean by millennials? Fairfax Forward is not a plan for people millennial or otherwise, it is a plan for developers and their captured, meaning corrupt or clueless, politicians. There is a huge push to get this and other initiatives passed before we wake up. Stop it in its tracks before it is too late. Once it is passed it cannot be pulled back, that is the nature of land use decisions.

    5. Anon 1:23: Re: "The bottom line is that density is bad only when it means cars." No, it is bad when it means too many cars causing too much traffic, overcrowded schools, unwanted urban life, higher maintenance costs and lower incomes. And other stuff that causes people to much prefer Mayberry to New York City. No it is definitely not just about cars.

  2. There are some who oppose the higher density called for in the comprehensive plans such as 7 corners, and there are others who would have liked to see even more.

    I think one thing that many would agree to is that after all of the hard work that went into the comprehensive plans (like 7 corners, which I refer to because my neighborhood is next to it), we want to see the development that is put forth comply to the comprehensive plans. The concern is that the zoning amendment allows wiggle room for developers and board members funded by developers to put in more density than was called for. After all - comprehensive plans are considered "guides" by the county, but the zoning is law.

    If you translate the form based code that is in the 7 corners plan to FAR, I believe it comes out to just under 3.0 FAR. You can now see the concern that the county is approving an amendment that would allow for 5.0 FAR, which is not what the comprehensive plan calls for.

    Mason District comprehensive plans have been ignored before. Baileys calls for a walkable community, yet we get drive through CVS's. I believe it also calls for mixed-use development, yet the county proceeded with the land swap for single-use apartments. Not to mention the comprehensive plan for the southeast quadrant was amended without community input in January 2015.

    There are legit concerns here that after a lot of hard work, the community is being given the shaft, and at this point, there very little (if any) trust in the community that the county is not pulling another fast one on them.

  3. I believe this article misunderstands the issue. The change to the law ALLOWS FARs of upt to 5 in revitalization districts. It does not automatically upzone any. Each upzoning would still have to be handled on a case by case basis.

    Also I think it is totally incorrect that added transportation improvements benefit only developers. Look at Annandale for example. The proposed transportation improvements, while needed to support development, would also be an improvement over existing conditions.

    Also it is incorrect to see rail as the only viable form of transit. Bus Rapid Transit is increasingly being adopted as a high quality transit option.

  4. The above piece misstates what is at issue. This change in the law would ALLOW FARs up to 5 in revitalization districts, IIUC, but upzoning would still be required in individual plans. On a case by case basis. Right now if any individual area needs a higher FAR, it is not possible due to law.

    I surely hope, Ellie, that you will give office of planning people, and members of BoS who support the change, an opportunity to respond.

    1. To your point "Right now, if any individual area needs a higher FAR, it is not possible due to law."

      I'd like to hone in on that word _individual_. The amendment as it stands now is lumping all of the redevelopment districts together - a CBC's FAR ceiling is being raised to the same amount as a TSA.

      Personally, I think this amendment would get more support if it was a bit more targeted. Raise the ceiling to 5 for TSAs but keep a lower ceiling for CBCs, which to my knowledge no CBC comprehensive plan calls for FAR that high.

      I understand that this amendment doesn't automatically make all CBCs FAR 5, however it does grease the skids for that to happen. The county considers comprehensive plans "guides", and as such are up for interpretation by the supervisor.

      I see that the zoning ordinance needs to be changed, but I just don't think the language is good enough yet to protect citizen input in the process.

    2. It is possible the language could be targeted more narrowly - I think a member of the BoS or a Planning Office lawyer could address that better. However the issue is not the flexibility with regard to the comprehensive plan - it is district plans and form based codes, which are not flexible. This takes away one obstacle to changing them, but they would still need to go through a public process, and I believe BoS approval, to be changed.

  5. Ellie, thank you so much for publicizing this very important information! The county has secretly been developing this FAR 5 Zoning Ordinance Amendment (ZOA), and has not made any effort to educate residents about what it will do to our business areas. It is a terrible proposal. If you want density of FAR 5, please look at Rosslyn to see the amount of density it has there. In fact, Rosslyn is not even at FAR 5. The density is overwhelming, but Rosslyn has the metro. Bailey’s Crossroads, Annandale, Seven Corners, Lincolnia only have buses. Tysons Corner is only at FAR 4 and that’s a crazy amount of density. The county sent this proposal to only the developers and the developers’ lawyers in the beginning to get their comments, not to residents. Fortunately, a sharp resident saw the proposal being circulated among developers and started sounding the alarm to residents. This proposal would give the Board of Supervisors unlimited powers. The Board could easily find ways to get around an area’s comprehensive plan that limits FARs, it won’t be difficult. If this amendment is passed it will destroy the character of our very different and individual business districts and make them into one size fits all, with high buildings, reduced open spaces, reduced park land (50% can be on top of a building), reduced parking, and a reduction in the amount of space between business district and adjoining neighborhoods. In other words, our communities will look nothing like they do today. I chose to live an area that doesn’t have that amount of density; we must be able to choose what we want our business districts to look like. If we decide we want high densities that fine but we need a way to input. This proposal will take that away. Please write the Planning Commissioners at and the Board of Supervisors at to demand your right to be educated about this zoning ordinance before it is passed. This amendment is only a giveaway to developers. We all want revitalization but not at the expense of our own individual business areas and communities.

  6. Clyde Miller5/14/16, 4:14 PM

    Terry and Ellie, thank you for taking the time to write and post a warning to the community re the risks inherent in the county’s proposed zoning amendment that would allow the Board of Supervisors to approve 5.0 FAR developments anywhere in all seven Community Business Centers (CBCs), all five Commercial Revitalization Districts (CRDs), and all 10 Transit Station Areas as well as all CBCs, CRDs, and TSAs to come in the future. One troubling aspect of the amendment is the confused and confusing manner in which it has been presented to the community. In essence, the proposal is that 5.0 FAR developments could be approved in any and all of these areas unless the Comprehensive Plan for an area explicitly recommended a lower maximum FAR. In areas with form-based plans (Annandale, Seven Corners, and much of Bailey’s Crossroads), plans do not explicitly recommend FARs; they recommend only max floor areas and, in some cases, max building heights. In these areas adoption of the amendment immediately would allow Board approval of 5.0 FAR developments.

    Even where plans recommend max FARs in CRDs, there is no reliable protection against 5.0 FAR because, in CRDs, Board policy encourages plan amendments in rezoning applications from developers. If a developer wants 5.0 FAR in a CRD, all s/he needs to do is submit a proposed change to the Comprehensive Plan for Board approval. No problem.

    Finally, the new Fairfax Forward process that the Board has adopted for managing changes to the Comprehensive Plan virtually eliminates effective citizen control over changes while expediting processing of changes recommended by supervisors, property owners, and developers. While it may take Fairfax Forward a year or two to raise the FAR recommendation in a plan to 5.0, the task can be accomplished with little or no effective citizen participation. Bottom line: developers, property owners, and supervisors readily would be able to increase the allowable FAR to 5.0 in any current or future CBC, CRD, or TSA.. The current Comprehensive Plan provides no reliable long-term protection. And Mason District citizens should remember that Supervisor Gross commonly does not consult the community before taking her plans and Comprehensive Plan amendments to the Board for approval.

    The effect of the zoning amendment would be Board nomination of all CBCs, CRDs, and TSAs in the county for high-density redevelopment. The consequence would be enormous pressure on communities from the county to accept these high-density redevelopments – exactly like the pressure applied to the Seven Corners community during the county’s recent planning exercise. Yet the county has made no determination that all of the areas nominated are appropriate for such developments and has not determined that the developments would be consistent with the values and interests of citizens. From a planning point of view the amendment is clumsy and unprofessional. From a political perspective it is overreach and imperious.

    Citizens, please take time to understand the amendment and its consequences. The staff report is on line at The Planning Commission hearing is on 25 May, the Board is on 7 Jun. Get your neighborhood associations involved and express your opinions.

  7. Proposed transportation"improvements" to Route 7 are the standard answers to today's congestion and the magic formula put forth for future development. Unfortunately,there is no designated funding for this elixir. Nor is there an explanation as to exactly where/how light rail or buses will travel on a road that traverses 3 jurisdictions without inter-jurisdictional rapport,considerable redesign and necessary widening. The Arlington trolley was an example of a promised, much touted transportation solution that didn't materialize. A number of residents are no longer accepting the" Just trust us, accept the proposed development and everything will be fine" rhetoric so often proposed by County officials.