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Votes

Remaining Land to Be Reserved For Low Density

You might not have to sell the farm after all. In fact, you might even be able to buy a new one in Fairfax County, or at least a single-family home on a large lot.

Despite the fact that Fairfax County residents are often warned that their horizon is becoming hemmed in by high-rise buildings and densely cropped townhomes, there is still plenty of open land left in the county, figures from the county's 2000 Demographic Report show. According to the Department of Systems Management, which issued the report, almost 10 percent of the county's 399 square miles are classified as vacant land.

Furthermore, the county plans to maintain that land as open space in the future by allowing only low-density developments there. About 60 percent of the county's vacant land is planned for densities of fewer than one unit per acre, and 36 percent of it is planned for densities of between one and five units per acre. The remaining 4 percent is planned for densities typical of townhouses or multifamily homes, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Because the lots are large, "we're not talking about that many new units," noted At-Large Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn. He predicted that most of that land would not be rezoned to accommodate higher densities because it is largely in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Occoquan or Potomac watersheds.

Most of the new development is going to occur closer to mass transit, he added.

"We're looking to channel new development in areas that are appropriate and can be handled by infrastructure," he said. "It does make sense to me to concentrate development in a few areas as opposed to letting higher density run all over the place."

And that, he said, is classic smart growth. "You concentrate higher-density development in only a few areas." High densities near transit allows those areas farther out to remain relatively open.

BUT CLARK MASSEY is skeptical of smart growth.

"'Smart growth' is a popular term these days, and a lot of people apply it for different reasons," said Massey, a real-estate developer and broker, who heads the development company Tetra Corp. Massey has also long been involved in the county's efforts to provide affordable housing. He serves on the affordable housing task force and is a founding member of the nonprofit housing group A-HOME.

The fact that most of the remaining land in the county is planned for low densities "is really kind of telling of a future problem" in affordable housing, he said.

"The housing prices are just getting so expensive. There is clearly a housing crisis out there."

While increasing density near transit is a step in the right direction, Massey sees a need to also designate some of the county's open land to affordable housing.

"Clearly we're not advocating going out and putting in a development that is going to contribute to the diminishment of the environmental areas that are out there," he said. Nevertheless, "there are potentially portions of those areas that could be re-examined and have higher density."

Changes would need to be made to the county's Comprehensive Plan, which lays out the county's visions for land-use policy. But before any change is made to the plan, supervisors will seek the input of people who live in the surrounding area.

"How really quote, unquote ‘objective’ can local residents be in terms of developing in the area?" he asked.

John Callaghan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, agreed that opportunities to create more affordable housing will be lost if the county's remaining land is turned into freestanding homes with expansive front and back yards.

"When you have a large tract of land that's used for single-family homes, it doesn't come under the ADU ordinance," he said, referring to the Affordable Dwelling Unit ordinance, which mandates that affordable housing should be provided for when a multifamily development goes up.

"THE FACT THAT we have a lot of land that is not developed does not mean we aren't providing affordable housing," said Alcorn. To boost the supply of affordable housing options, the county will let developers build at higher densities in selected locations such as Merrifield, Herndon or Reston, where transit options either already exist or will exist in the future.

"Smart growth doesn't say the county needs to be wall-to-wall townhouses," said Paul Hughes, president of the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The idea is to concentrate growth around these mass-transit facilities."

Affordable housing units would be interspersed among the townhouses and condos near transit so that people in need of affordable housing would not have to invest in a car, Hughes added.

Both Hughes and Alcorn point to Arlington's land-use policies after the Metro's Orange Line was completed as an example of responsible development.

"The goal is not to develop all of the acreage in Fairfax County; the goal is to have livable communities of residences and jobs that are accessible and safe," said Alcorn.