Scared into More Density?

Scared into More Density?

Residents hear disaster scenarios if Reston’s zoning ordinance isn’t changed.

In one of the opening slides during a 44-slide presentation, a mock development plan popped up on a large screen hanging on the wall.

The hypothetical development scenario targeted a real north Reston cluster with 90 townhouses on 23 acres, which happen to be zoned “high density.”

If a developer came in and bought all 90 homes, which county officials said could occur at anytime, then the neighborhood could be redeveloped — by right — in any number of ways.

For Scenario 1, the county imagined two 20-plus-story buildings to house 470 units and a three-level parking structure with 330 spaces.

For Scenario 2, the county showed three eight-story buildings and five seven-story buildings to accommodate 472 units.

“It’s the classic case of what could happen,” said Frank de la Fe, the planning commissioner who represents the Hunter Mill district. “Maybe sometime in the future maybe all the people move out, but it could be redeveloped … without any kind of review by anybody … so long as it’s under the cap.”

AFTER PRESENTING the two scenarios, Jim Zook, Fairfax County’s chief planner, told a crowd of more than 80 people Wednesday, Oct. 4, that the issue before the Reston community is: “Who decides?”

“We’ve seen whole neighborhoods sell out to a developer,” said Zook. “Redevelopment proposals will occur in Reston. The question is who will be involved in that process.”

His staff recommends that rezoning require review and approval by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

County officials urged the audience to endorse the changes, suggesting that their neighborhood could be targeted.

But for now neighborhoods are safe since Reston has nearly hit the cap. (See "Busting the Cap.")

Instead, it’s the county that faces an urgent situation where additional residential development proposals in Reston would be dead on arrival because there’s no room under the cap. “We’re trying to solve an issue that we think is imminent,” said Zook. “Of course you realize that once we turn down site plans, we’re going to get sued.

DURING THE MEETING, the first in a series led by the Reston Planning and Zoning Committee, Zook never asked if people preferred more density, and if so, how much, or if they liked the status quo.

Instead, Zook and other county staff presented their recommended changes to Reston’s Planned Residential Community zoning ordinance. Recommended changes would allow additional density and incorporate greater legislative controls.

The PRC ordinance currently allows an additional 4,100 high-rise residential units, before hitting a density “cap” that limits Reston’s total residential density to 13 persons per acre.

Calculating density is determined based on population factors for various housing types — 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. Staff argued that these values, which were based on 1974 data, should be reduced to reflect more recent data.

The county’s recommended reductions would result in an increase in allowable residential development of an additional 3,800 high-rise units.

Pending applications nearly account for all but about 500 of the 4,100 available units currently under the cap, according to the county.

The addition of 7,900 high-rise units is equivalent to the addition of more than 16,000 people.

SEVERAL PEOPLE in the audience questioned the reason for adding more density at all.

“What are the benefits to Reston itself to drive toward this?” said John Bowman, who has lived in Reston 21 years.

“As we age … there are needs for revitalization and-or redevelopment,” said Zook, “And the issue of redevelopment is what drove the staff recommendations — the question of who decides where redevelopment is important.”

“Just because we can doesn’t mean we should, and my question is: Why should we?” said Bowman.

“We’re not doing this to accommodate the developers’ applications,” said Zook.

Zook also said that the population factors should be changed to avoid lawsuits. If the cap were reached, a developer could take the county to court and argue that the population factors were outdated. The ordinance says the factors should be updated periodically.

One Reston resident, Maxine Threntham, took offense to the frequent references to lawsuits. “Who would take who to court?” she said. “I take that as a threat.”

Others wondered why a discussion about density omitted talk about the region’s transportation woes.

“You got to take a look at how transportation fits into this whole density paradigm,” said Joe Hering, who moved to Reston 35 years ago when the population was around 10,000. “We’re not going to have any degree of self-direction in terms of transportation, and it’s got to fit this whole plan on density.”