Land-Use Questions Loom Large

Land-Use Questions Loom Large

In a new state of Northern Virginia, land-use questions would loom large. Centreville's Jim Hart, on both the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) and the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee, recently considered the possibilities.

"A lot of land use is handled at a local level, anyway, and I think citizen review of land-use cases and issues would be about the same," he said. "The Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors and BZA are all county-level types of things."

Still, said Hart, land use is not only regulated by local zoning ordinances, but also by the state code. And one of the frustrations many people have had for years is with the Dillon Rule. It means that localities derive all their powers from the state and don't have particular powers unless they're specifically granted.

For example, Hart noted that the state code doesn't give Fairfax County the right to deny development to one owner when it's already been granted to an owner in similar circumstances.

"You can't deny Parcel B's owner from building homes, too, when you've granted that permission to Parcel A's owner — just because the schools are overcrowded," he explained. Such an argument, he said, has nothing to do with land use.

In the 1960s and '70s, the county lost several legal cases in the Virginia Supreme Court, trying to restrict development, because the high court said Fairfax County didn't have that power under the Dillon Rule. Therefore, said Hart, "Some people say that we don't have enough power because of the Dillon Rule."

Indeed, at times, the county Board of Supervisors has asked for an Adequate Public Facilities ordinance enabling the county to deny development (of, for example, a large residential community) if the public facilities — roads and schools — weren't already in place to serve it.

But the county has never been allowed this power.

Sally Ormsby, on the county's Soil and Water Conservation Board — and chairman of the Fairfax County Citizens Committee on Land-Use and Transportation — also remarked that, although land use is supposed to be a local priority, the state legislature sometimes enacts land-use laws superseding the county's authority. Said Ormsby: "The county's Comprehensive Plan provides for a balance between development and infrastructure, but we don't have the tools to ensure it."

Hart also had concerns about the state code. "To the extent that many of the things in our zoning ordinance are derived from the state code — such as requiring public hearings on some cases and not on others — what happens if we depart from that code?" he asked.

Forming a new state, he said, would have to be done in "baby steps." Said Hart: "There's just so much to think about and many implications that haven't been thought through, yet, before we start proceedings."

Ormsby said the U.S. Constitution says that new states may not be formed from within another state without the consent of that state's legislature and the U.S. Congress. "I cannot imagine a cold day in hell when the Virginia State Legislature would approve a separate state of Virginia, since we provide so much funding for the rest of the state," she said.

If Northern Virginia was a separate state, said Ormsby, it could enact whatever laws it wanted to and could control its own destiny without interference from the Commonwealth. But then, she warned, "We'd have no one to blame but ourselves. But we'd only have to look out for the welfare of the people in the new state."

She said nothing happened 15 years ago when county Board of Supervisors Vice-Chairman Martha Pennino suggested the same thing, so she doesn't see the idea coming to fruition now. Still, said Ormsby, "Perhaps we should talk up the possibility — because we're certainly not getting any favors from Richmond."