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Town Rewrites Zoning Ordinance

Planning Commission looks at consolidating current zoning ordinance, simplifying town zoning code.

Planning Commissioners have a big task before them to complete by early fall — rewriting the town's zoning ordinance to make sense.

Commissioners, at the request of the Town Council, are working steadily to dissect sections of the town's zoning code to simplify and consolidate amendments and ad hoc changes that were made during the last 30 years.

"We're hoping [the rewrite] will make the zoning ordinance a whole lot more 'user friendly'," said Jay Donahue, vice chair, Planning Commission. "Not only for the Planning Commission and Town Council and developers, but for citizens in general."

COMMISSIONERS HAVE already begun reviewing the code by sections. Monday evening they met with Kay Robertson, senior projects planner with the town, and Elizabeth Gilleran, senior planner with the town, to comment on Articles I, II and VII — administrative aspects.

"We're just trying to simplify it all," said Donahue. "We're covering administrative areas and primarily we're putting the ordinance together in a way where people won't have to look all over for information."

The rewrite is meant to bring the code up to date with Herndon's current developments and make sure the town is not at a disadvantage because of potentially outdated guidelines, said Mayor Michael O'Reilly.

"This process started as a result of a development originally called Lions Gate in 1998," said O'Reilly. "Town Council was surprised when it came in as a by-right use for multi-family homes."

O'Reilly explained based on the town's code the development was able to be built. At the time there was little council could do to deny development.

"We wanted to get some consistency," said O'Reilly about the code, "some uniformity."

He said council first proposed the rewrite in 2000, but has done little until now, adding that he was disappointed after the 2002 and 2004 terms that nothing was done with the rewrites. He also stated that in that time some developers have taken advantage of the system while others have been confused by conflicting information.

"We ought to be able to point to the ordinance for reference," he said. "We don't want this to be a mysterious process."

THE REWRITE PROCESS will also look into neighborhood and private residence involvement in major developments, said Donahue.

Monday evening, commissioners touched on establishing a means for residents to meet with developers to comment on major projects before they reach the Planning Commission level.

Commissioner Ralph Beard questioned the definition of "neighborhood" in the code. He asked how a developer decided who was in a "neighborhood" and whether or not they should be contacted in relation to projects that could impact their quality of life.

Gilleran said the commission could look into altering the definition, although it could be difficult to put exact qualifications in place. She said town staff can "give suggestions, we can't mandate" that developers meet with community members about proposed developments.

"The bottom line is we want to get more people involved but we don't know how to," said Carl Sivertsen, chair, Planning Commission.

Charlie Waddell, 11-year resident, said pre-meetings could shorten the final approval process.

"It is a very effective tool for flushing out objections and flushing out problems," he said, "before they get to the council level."

Waddell said he would like the rewrite to clarify the roles between the commission and council for developers.

"What I hope ... is that a heavier reliance will be placed on the experience of the Planning Commission," he said. "The Planning Commission should be the engineering and detail side of it and the Town Council should hold public hearings for the politics of it."

AFTER COMMISSIONERS make changes to the ordinance and hear public comment, articles will be sent to the council level at an "aggressive pace" to meet the timeline of completion by late 2005, early 2006, said O'Reilly.

Donahue said he hopes residents realize the importance of the rewrite and their availability to comment on the ultimate outcome is a rarity. Because the code was last updated in the early 70s, he said it is unclear when another rewrite could happen.

Currently Commissioners are scheduled to meet almost every Monday night to review each section and hear public testimony. Commissioners decided to start work sessions an hour earlier, at 6 p.m., to discuss the rewrites. Meetings are already scheduled through to Sept. 15.

"We're going to be writing an ordinance that's going to have an impact on a lot of lives in Herndon," said Donahue. "I would like to see more people involved."