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Officials Pass Ordinance To Aid Development

Changes to Herndon zoning ordinance aim to simplify the jobs of developers and clean up 30 years of piecemeal amendments.

The Town of Herndon approved its first comprehensive zoning ordinance redraft in nearly 35 years last month when the Town Council approved the adoption of a five-year project that will bring more simplification and minimal changes to the existing ordinance, according to town zoning officials.

"This is the first time the town has looked at [the zoning ordinance] comprehensively since 1971," said Kay Robertson, a senior project planner for the town of Herndon and chief coordinator of the Zoning Ordinance Rewrite Project. The adopted changes are scheduled to go into effect on July 1.

Although several amendments had been made to the ordinance since 1971, none of them had been fully integrated to the ordinance with updates to its complete text since then, according to Robertson.

As a result, the zoning ordinance had become characterized by inconsistent and often unclear wording regarding the treatment of certain zoning districts and had fallen far out of date for current developers' necessities, Robertson said.

"Having 30 years of piecemeal amendments had caused the ordinance to develop inconsistencies and misconceptions," Robertson said, adding that these elements oftentimes resulted in the over-complication of certain ordinance regulations and confusion amongst developers. "The town wanted to bring it up and clear up some of these issues to keep it up to date."

"The old zoning ordinance was really geared to an era where not much attention was paid to site design," she said. "Since 1971, the town has become more aware of the importance of design and livability of the community."

"[The new zoning ordinance] is a way of communicating clearly to developers what the towns expectations are for development," Robertson said.

THE PROJECT came out of problems that were recognized in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Elizabeth Gilleran, zoning administrator for the town of Herndon and a participant in the project.

"In the 1990s and 2000s we were noticing that the inadequacies, inconsistencies and conflicts [of the existing ordinance] were becoming more and more of a problem," Gilleran said.

The drive to make the process and comprehensibility of the ordinance simpler came out of these problems that developers were having, Gilleran said.

"From the start [of their development project] the developer will know exactly what the process is," she said. "Bits and pieces were often confusing and now it's been made very clear, very understandable; where they can see exactly what's expected of them and what the town is expecting they provide."

"It's an effort to bring consistency in its expectations for the town," Robertson said. "When a single family wants to add a wing to their house it is consistent with all the others — [and that] it's a good thing for the neighborhood and not detrimental."

ONE OF THE LARGEST visible changes was in the reduction of zoning districts 10 residential and 13 business districts to five residential and seven business districts.

"We are a 4-square-mile town, and we had a lot of these zoning districts that were similar," said Elizabeth Gilleran, zoning administrator for the town of Herndon and a participant in the rewrite project. "Upon looking at these ordinances, it was determined that frankly, many of them could be merged without having a significant impact in the real world scenario."

Both Robertson and Gilleran played down the possibility of significant changes to the ways that residents will be able to use their property in the future and that changes were made almost exclusively as a way to update the zoning ordinance for increased clarity.

However, future commercial developers may need to pay closer attention to the changes, according to Gilleran.

"Businesses will see a little more [change] because we have merged districts in the office and light industrial area," she said. "In one instance where four districts were put into one, we had to strike a balance [of regulations]."

This does not mean that businesses that do not meet all of the new regulations will be shut down or forced to adapt, Gilleran said.

"The existing buildings will not be forced to change — those that don't meet new requirements will be listed as legally non-conforming," Gilleran said.

The new regulations will take years of redevelopment projects to apply to all the buildings in Herndon because the new ordinance only affects new developments, according to Gilleran.

For instance, if there is a car mechanic's garage in an area that no longer provides for car mechanic garages under the new zoning ordinance, that garage will not be forced to change from a garage into an approved development, even if the owner were to sell it to somebody else, she said.

ALTHOUGH THE DOWNTOWN area has had its two principal zoning districts redefined, these changes do not reflect the push for the redevelopment of downtown, according to Gilleran.

"It's been a project we started on back [in 2001] and in the past year and a half we've finally had enough resources to bring it to fruition," she said.

"There will not be a lot of regulatory changes to the [downtown] zoning districts that most developments will be looking at in a redevelopment scenario," Gilleran said, pointing towards the decades-old requirements for certain types of commercial developments and specific physical requirements for any new developments downtown.

"I believe the Town Council sees the new ordinance as a way to protect the existing town character," Robertson said.

Despite all the changes and updates that have been made, the ordinance rewrite committee will be reviewing the ordinance within the next year, according to Gilleran.

"We will discover additional changes and things that need to be updated as we start to use it," she said. "We will have to take another look at them and make a clean-up effort."

"The initial hope is that the ordinance becomes more user-friendly and easier for residents to property developers to understand what the town wants [in regards to new developments]," Robertson said. "We really hope this brings Herndon to a more sophisticated level of developmental management."