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Votes

Density Hits Home

Residents respond to county plans to modify a density “cap,” which is fast approaching.

Allowable residential development in Reston is an endangered species that needs saving, county officials told a wary crowd of about 60 people Tuesday, June 20 at Langston Hughes Intermediate School.

During a meeting hosted by Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) on the future of residential development, Jim Zook, the county’s director of planning and zoning, tried to explain the status of a 45-year-old zoning ordinance that could soon bring residential development in Reston to a standstill.

Most of Reston, roughly 6,200 acres, is zoned as a planned residential community (PRC). The PRC zoning ordinance includes a total residential density “cap” of 13 persons per acre, which is fast approaching, according to Zook.

Under the county’s interpretation of the ordinance, Reston’s current density is 11.68 persons per acre, which allows for an additional 4,106 high-rise residential units. Development applications currently in the pipeline could cut that number in half.

“If we ignored this issue in our office, then at some point in time we would be shutting down proposals that this community may want,” said Zook, who outlined plans to retool the ordinance starting in July.

WHILE ZOOK spoke of reprogramming the county ordinance to define rules for redevelopment in Reston, residents pointed to the unchecked glut of high-rises, increased traffic congestion and the rising burden on public services that the community already faces.

“I live near the town center, and I think I speak for my neighbors when I say we are just disgusted with all the high-rises,” said Julie Light, a resident of Oak Park Condos in Reston.

She wondered if the density cap ordinance were modified, how would development be checked? “This whole community was supposed to be about nature and the walks, and I think we’re destroying that,” said Light to what may have been the loudest applause of the night.

She voiced dismay over the recent approval of two high-rise condo buildings on the Oracle campus at the intersection of Reston Parkway and Sunset Hills Road. The Planning Commission approved the combined 457-unit development last month despite strong resistance from the county’s planning and zoning staff, who called the proposal “very bad” and “disassociated development.”

Others think the density cap would handcuff Reston’s future.

Robert E. Simon, Reston’s founder, called for the abolition of the cap, which he said was obsolete. No one could have predicted that Reston would emerge into the Silicon Valley of the East, said Simon.

“There is no way to predict what the future will hold,” he said, adding that it would be “unreasonable” to subject Reston to a density cap.

ZOOK ASSURED the crowd that changes would only be made after several opportunities for community input.

Since the beginning of the year, Fairfax County’s planning and zoning office has counted and recounted residential units in Reston, trying to confirm whether or not Reston had eclipsed its density cap.

Zook first reported in February that Reston was at 12.5 persons per acre and only 1,530 high-rise units away from hitting the cap, but he added that further analysis was necessary. After further review, the county reported Reston’s density at 11.68 persons per acre.

One focus of the ordinance change, said Zook, would be the formula for calculating density specified for the PRC.

The ordinance applies density values (called “factors”) 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.

When the county inputs these density values, Reston’s population comes in at 72,100. Because this figure does not accurately reflect Reston’s true population, which is closer to 62,000, Zook said a good starting point for amending the ordinance would be revising the density values to better reflect U.S. Census population data.

IN ADDITION to revising the density values for the four types of housing, this year’s proposed ordinance change would include rules for redevelopment in Reston.

This would have two benefits, according to Zook. First, it would define the current zoning of residential neighborhoods to “what’s already been developed there.” For example, if a cluster currently has 100 homes, but the site plan allows for 500, the cluster’s official zoning would be set at 100. This ensures the status quo and the preservation of “stable residential neighborhoods,” said Zook.

The other benefit of defining redevelopment is that it would clarify and regulate the process for zoning changes, which would be subjected to a legislative, community-involved process.

“What I’m trying to do it clarify the rules,” said Zook. “Developers would argue they are entitled ‘by-right’ to develop according to the site plan.”

OTHERS ADMITTED they were skeptical of any changes and the rapid timetable to amend the ordinance.

Najwa Saad of Reston felt Zook’s presentation was unclear, a sentiment echoed by many people.

Some audience members said they left the meeting more confused than when they arrived. “I’m totally confused,” said Simon at one point late in the meeting.

Jim Kepler, a Reston resident for 25 years, argued that the proposed ordinance changes, which may be necessary, bypass the real question that Hudgins and county staff ought to be asking the community: what do people think Reston’s density should be?

“I think the [density] cap does what [Zook] is proposing to do,” said Kepler, referring to the preservation of the residential status quo. But Kepler added that the changes Zook proposes would not only preserve the status quo, but also open the door for much more redevelopment.

“The point is not that there won’t be change —there will be change,” said Zook. “The issue is how that change will be managed.”

Mike Corrigan, president of the Reston Citizens Association, suggested that residents would be a lot more comfortable with change if Reston were a town. The density issue could become another example of how not being a town could cost Restonians the ability to control their own future, he argued.

PLANNING AND ZONING staff will seek approval of an ordinance amendment proposal from the Board of Supervisors in July. Public hearings would be held in September or October before the board makes its final decision.

At a meeting with Reston’s Planning and Zoning Committee earlier this month, Zook said another aspect of an ordinance change could determine whether the Reston Town Center area deserves special zoning.

The county could begin looking at changing the density cap of 13 persons per acre as early as September, said Zook.