The county has formulated guidelines for a new program that will enable development rights to be shifted from one piece of property to another in the county.
Arlington officials believe that by allowing the transfer of density between parcels of land, they will be able to create more affordable units, preserve historic structures and save open space.
"This gives us an additional tool by which to guide growth, allocate community benefits and protect property rights, all at the same time," said County Board member Jay Fisette.
THE PROGRAM WILL allow "sending" sites to sell their unused density — the amount of space they were allowed to build on but chose not to use up — to eligible "receiving" properties in either the Rosslyn-Ballston strip or the Jefferson-Davis districts. While density can be transferred from anywhere in Arlington, county staff is recommending it only be added to sites in the two Metro corridors.
"If you're looking to move density to a townhouse in Lyon Park, forget about it," said Bob Brosnan, Arlington planning director.
By enabling owners of historic buildings and apartments with affordable units to sell density to developers, the county hopes it can encourage the original owners to maintain the structures.
"This program is not about creating density but about preserving things and allowing the density to be moved if it fits," Brosnan said.
The county is creating an enormous incentive for developers, by enabling the shift not of just the "sending" sites unused space, but of the entire amount of density allowed on the property. Officials see this as an important and innovative device in the quest to keep as many affordable units as possible.
The program will help "historic building that might not otherwise have the money to be preserved," said Colleen O'Connor, a member of the county’s planning staff.
The two properties would apply as part of the county's regular site plan process. The County Board would then determine if the community benefits were sufficient for a transfer of development and greater density.
"This is a chance to scan out the bad ideas ahead of time," Brosnan said. "If it's a total waste of time, the developers will know."
Under the draft proposal, "sending" sites will be able to sell their density to multiple properties, but only if they do it all at once. There is also a provision allowing a "receiving" site to forward their new density elsewhere if the board deems it appropriate.
Yet just because a property gains added density, it does not mean it can automatically build higher structures than is allowed under zoning rules. A new ordinance will not result in 250-foot buildings in Clarendon, Transportation Commission Chair Peter Owen said.
IN FEBRUARY, the County Board unanimously voted to give itself the authority to establish a development transfer program without setting its boundaries, angering some residents who felt officials were rushing the process.
Board members have promised not to use their new power until the ordinance was drafted by county staff and vetted by the public.
Last year the Virginia General Assembly allowed Arlington to become the only jurisdiction in the state with the ability to establish such a program.
Not everyone is pleased with the initial draft plan. John Antonelli, a prominent civic activist, sees the program as little more than a give-away to developers.
"The only one who wins on this is developers," he said. "Now [the county] can move density from some junkyard in south Arlington and build something way bigger than the community ever expected."
Other neighborhood leaders interviewed said they were pleased that the county has come up with a new way to save historic structures and affordable units, but worry about how the county will implement its new powers.
"We are always happy to get things from the county, but we don't need more density," said Stan Karson, president of the Radnor/Ft. Myers Heights Civic Association.
Mike Nardollili, president of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, insists that the County Board establish an organization to ensure that the agreements are adhered to and future board members do not renege on promises made.
"The only enforceable entity is Arlington County, and Arlington County can change its mind," he said.
For now, county staff is still soliciting the advice of County Board members and community leaders before it presents a final plan. A more detailed proposal is expected to come before the board in September.
"This is a brand new authority the county has gotten and it shouldn't surprise anyone if it will take a good amount of community input to settle on technical details that are most appropriate," Owen said.