The usually collegial atmosphere of the Vienna Town Council changed into a heated debate Monday night, during a discussion of the future of Maple Avenue. A citizen task force, the Maple Avenue Vision Committee, had been formed in 2002 and presented its plan for the future of Vienna’s main street in March.
The committee called for going to a "form-based" zoning code along the Maple Avenue corridor. Form-based zoning would allow the town to create an overlay zone that would dictate the size, shape and style of the buildings, rather than typical zoning which dictates the use but not the appearance of a building.
In order to make the code work, the council must give some sort of incentive and allow developers to build something that will generate more profit. "How much would we give up?" asked Councilmember Laurie Cole.
Cole noted that the three places the council might be able to bend would be on the amount of parking required, the density on the lot or the height of the building. Height, she said, was the most likely place the council could change.
Cole also expressed an interest in, if the council should continue with a form-based code, developing a hybrid system that could forbid some uses. She gave the example of a rendering plant, noting that under the more open version of form-based codes, one could be built, as long as the architectural requirements were met. "If somebody wanted to build a really nice rendering plant, under a form-based code, that’s what you would get," Cole said.
THE TYPE of mixed-use developments that a form-based code encourages, Cole said, may not be much more than a fad. "I think that these are trendy notions that end up becoming hollow ideas," she said.
Councilmember George Lovelace was the first to state his hesitation to changing to such a code. First, Lovelace said, the council must decide what it thinks Vienna should look like in the future. "I’m not ready to give up three stories," Lovelace said. Currently, the town code allows for buildings to be 35 feet high.
The form-based code would allow for taller buildings, closer to the street and create a more urban, town-center sort of streetscape. Lovelace described this potential as creating a canyon on Maple Street. "I’m not ready to change the character of Vienna, yet," Lovelace said.
Councilmember Maud Robinson launched into an extended speech against the code. After thanking the task force for its work, she attacked their methods. Robinson read passages from the minutes of the committee meetings noting that the group had, at one point, suggested filling the council chamber with supporters in order to try and push their suggestions. "I do not appreciate that kind of conduct by any board or commission," Robinson said.
Robinson railed against the possibility of mid-rise condos along Maple Street, saying it was in direct opposition to the character of Vienna. It is the single-family homeowner raising their children that has created Vienna’s character, Robinson said, the kind of family which invests itself socially in the community.
Condos and mixed-use developments, Robinson said, are the trendy form of development now, similar to townhouses several decades ago. "It really is just jumping on the speculative condo train," Robinson said. "I don’t think we have to be the engine to run it through Vienna."
Councilmember Mike Polychrones disagreed. He noted the MetroWest development on one side of Vienna and the potential for the redevelopment of Tysons Corner on the other side of town. "Look how we’re being squeezed," he said. The town needs to adopt this, "So we can control what happens to us," he said. "I think we need to move forward, and I’m ready to do that."
Robinson rejected Polychrones assertion that change is coming, and Vienna needs to adapt. "I have heard that every blasted decade," she said. "Change is a challenge. Vienna has met that challenge … with a simple two-letter word, ‘No.’ We’re not going to do it that way, we’re going to do it our way."
"In 21st century business, Maud, ‘No’ as an answer just doesn’t cut it any more," Polychrones said.
The council decided it would need to have at least one more discussion about the issue at a later date, likely in late August or early September. Before that meeting, Cole noted, the council would need to do some soul-searching about the potential changes. "We need to decide what we’ll give up," Cole said. "Nothing could be an answer, too."
THE COUNCIL also heard a presentation from the Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Management. Mike Finkle, director of the department, explained that Section 8 housing will likely be coming to Vienna.
The federal program, administered by Fairfax County, provides vouchers to low-income residents to help them pay their rent. A previous opinion of the Fairfax County Attorney’s Office had suggested that the program could not operate within the town limits, Finkle said. However, that has now changed. "The Fairfax County Attorney has determined that [the housing department] has the authority to operate within the Town of Vienna," Finkle said.
Under the program, a prospective tenant pays a portion of the rent to his or her landlord, while the government pays the balance. No landlord is obliged to participate in the program, and this type of unit tends to be scattered throughout the town, not clustered in one area. He said he would not expect more than a couple dozen units in the town, after the program begins implementation.
Some landlords, Finkle said, welcome Section 8 tenants because the county government provides additional oversight into the upkeep of the property and always makes its rent payments.
Lovelace noted that the program is a private matter between a landlord and a tenant, and that the town would have little control over the issue. "Citizens, if they choose to rent their property, that’s their business," he said.
The council also heard a proposal to reconstruct the Jeremiah Moore house near the Vienna Dog Park. The house, formerly recognized for its historic value, has been dismantled and is currently stored in pieces, waiting for a place to be rebuilt.
A proposal by the Jeremiah Moore Historical and Education Society to rebuild the house on the grounds of Nottoway Park was rejected, primarily because the group has no guaranteed funding, and the Fairfax County Park Authority did not want to be saddled with the maintenance costs at a later date, if the group should dissolve. "That’s one of the things I’m concerned about," said Lovelace, who is also an at-large member of the Park Authority Board.
Jerry Duane, head of the historical group, said that it is difficult to raise funds before they have a plan to put the building, placing the dismantled structure in a Catch-22.
Without directly saying "No," the council greeted the idea with skepticism. "I just don’t want to give you any false hope about this," said Mayor M. Jane Seeman. The council generally agreed that having the historic structure in the town limits would be a benefit but did not think the group’s plan was concrete enough.
"What if there is, suddenly, the house without the personnel support?" Robinson said. She went on to note that when the building was on the verge of being removed, it generated little sympathy among the public. "What would attract the public interest?" she asked.
Town staff will conduct a brief study of the proposed location and determine if placing the house there is even possible.
THE COUNCIL also heard information about a likely water and sewer rate increase in the future. "Basically, we’re looking at an adjustment in rates to get the system solvent," said Steven Jacobs, of Robinson, Farmer, Cox and Associates, a firm that has been studying the issue.
The town currently gets water from both Fairfax County and the City of Falls Church, which it then resells to residents. The town may soon have to select one or the other of these two vendors instead of the current system. If that is the only choice, going to exclusively Fairfax County is a less expensive option for the town residents.
Councilmember Edythe Kelleher suggested that the town, instead of supporting its own water system, simply turn over the water system to Fairfax County. The rates in the county are much cheaper than in the town, she noted, and it is the same water, simply being resold. "By operating our own system, we don’t get any economies of scale, and we are duplicating work," she said. In changing over, they would potentially save the town’s water customers money, Kelleher said.
The town would likely have to continue to maintain its sewer network. The council directed staff to explore this option, along with the others.
The council also heard a discussion of the proposed design for the new park on the corner of Nutley and Knoll streets N.E., and will go forward once the proper funding can be secured.
Finally, the council heard a proposal to increase fees charged by the Planning and Zoning Department in conjunction with new developments. The council was generally in favor of the rate increases, which will now have to go through the standard approval process during regular business meetings.