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Reaching Density Limits?

County seeks to avoid density cap barrier by offering a zoning amendment.

New residential development in Reston may soon come to a screeching halt.

Fairfax County’s chief planning and zoning official said Monday that Reston is nearing its density “cap,” which prohibits total residential development from exceeding 13 persons per acre.

“We need to define what redevelopment is and set forth a legislative process for that to occur,” said Jim Zook, director of planning and zoning, who outlined a plan to avoid future complications that could bring residential development in Reston to a standstill.

Zook told members of the Reston Planning & Zoning committee that under the restriction Reston will only be able to accommodate 4,106 additional high-rise residential units before reaching the cap. But he acknowledged that this figure does not account for pending applications already making their way through the zoning approval process.

If current applications in the system were approved, the allowable residential development in Reston (4,106 high-rise units) would be cut in half, said Zook. Two such applications include Oracle’s proposal to build two high-rise buildings with 450 units and Equity’s proposal to build a 550-unit building on the parking lot in front of Ruby Tuesdays.

IN THE ORDERLY world of zoning, the planned residential community (PRC) area of Reston, roughly 6,200 acres, smacks of chaos.

For months now, Fairfax County’s planning and zoning office has counted and recounted residential units in Reston, trying to confirm whether or not a confusing 40-year-old zoning ordinance that limits Reston’s maximum density at 13 persons per acre has been breached.

At a similar meeting in February, Zook first reported that Reston was at 12.5 persons per acre and was only 1,530 high rise units away from hitting the cap, but he added that further review was required.

After taking time for in-depth analysis, county staff determined that Reston’s density is actually lower. “As far as I’m concerned, the final count is 11.68 persons per acre,” said Zook.

But how density is calculated may be antiquated, said Zook.

The ordinance applies density values to each form of housing — 3.5 persons per single family detached, 3 persons per single family attached, 2.5 persons per garden apartment and 2 persons per elevator apartment. For example, to determine the density population of Reston’s 4,247 single family detached homes, the county multiplies 4,247 by 3.5.

According to these calculations, Reston’s current population is 72,700, which Zook said is obviously not an accurate representation. Reston’s actual population is closer to 62,000, according to U.S. Census data.

Zook said the values for each type of housing was determined 30 years ago when family size was larger than it was today. Therefore, he asked, does it might make sense to revise the values to better reflect U.S. Census data? “The initial staff reaction is that we probably should,” said Zook. If the values are reduced, a commensurate reduction in Reston’s density per acre would occur, putting Reston further below the cap.

AT THE MEETING Monday, Zook proposed that the county make modifications to the zoning ordinance, a process that will be set in motion next month when staff sends an ordinance amendment proposal to the Board of Supervisors for approval. Public hearings would be held in September or October before the board made a final decision on changes.

The proposed ordinance change would define the meaning of redevelopment, consider revising the density values for the four kinds of housing and decide whether the Reston Town Center area deserves special zoning, said Zook. The county will not consider changing the density cap of 13 persons per acre this year, said Zook.

According to Zook, a clearly defined meaning of redevelopment would require developers to enter a legislative process when submitting site changes.

Zook also said that the county’s interpretation of the zoning ordinance currently restricts allowable density on a site-by-site basis to “what’s already been developed there.” In other words, even if an individual site plan allows for more density, the current level of density would guide redevelopment.

LAND USE attorney Mark Looney, of Cooley Godward, who in the past has represented numerous Reston developers, said the county’s interpretation limits even what it will be able do if it decides to redevelop Crescent Apartments, a housing development north of Lake Anne purchased in February for $49 million.

The site plan for the property, Looney said, allows for medium to high density, or 20 to 50 units per acre. One-hundred and eighty housing units currently sit on the 16-acre parcel, which is much less than the 320 units medium density would allow.

“There are other areas of less fractured ownership of large pockets of land,” said Looney, referring to other potential redevelopment sites.

Joe Stowers, a longtime resident and planner, who suggested that a zoning waiver system be adopted, noted that garden style apartments throughout Reston “have potential for redevelopment.”

Stephen Cerny, a member of Reston Planning and Zoning, asked how the changes could affect affordable housing developments in Reston. “Two developments under threat to be redeveloped, which would displace a lot of people, are Winterthur Apartments and Fairway Apartments,” said Cerny, an affordable housing advocate. Both apartment complexes provide “de facto” affordable housing, according to Hunter Mill Housing Commissioner Frank de la Fe.