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Maximum Residential Density or Bust?

Residents question motivation to change Reston's PRC Ordinance.

Public skepticism has been present ever since Fairfax County initiated debate over Reston's maximum residential density, as allowed by its Master Plan. The debate is centered on whether Reston should make changes to its residential district ordinance to accommodate more development.

The county fears it could be exposed to lawsuits from the development community if something is not done quickly. Late last year county staff recommended keeping the Reston Planned Residential Community (PRC) District density cap at 13 people per acre, but changing population factors that calculate how many people live in Reston. Some Reston residents, however, are against the proposal until the entire PRC Ordinance is reviewed. They argue that the review could provide for adequate infrastructure to support any additional residential density.

"Those of us who are lawyers don't see the urgency" to act now, said Robert Goudie. He and other residents met with Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) on Saturday morning to discuss the county proposal. Goudie represented the Alliance of Reston Clusters and Homeowners (ARCH) — an organization representing between 30 and 40 clusters — at the meeting. "ARCH does not have a view whether changing population factors is a good or bad thing," said Goudie. "There needs to be an integrated planning discussion," he said as he suggested the creation of a Greater Reston Task Force to study the PRC Ordinance and make its recommendations as to how to change the ordinance. He argued that the discussion needed to include areas of Reston, and outside of Reston, which do not fall under the PRC district. "Why the urgency? The question is, 'Why now?' Let's take a little more time and let's do a greater discussion," said Goudie.

Another Reston resident, John Bowman, warned that the perception of the residents might be that the county is representing the interests of the development community. He said the perception is like the elephant in the room, nobody talks about it but everybody knows it is there. "It looks like we got some developers, and we got to change the numbers or the developers can't get their developments through," said Bowman. "That's the perception and that's a problem."

President of Reston Citizens Association (RCA), Mike Corrigan, said it was difficult for him to see how modifying the factors is of benefit to Reston residents. "The consistent county response that the sky is falling and we have to do something or we will be sued and lose and Reston will be razed and replaced with Manhattan is not convincing," said Corrigan.

AS FAR AS BOWMAN'S elephant was concerned, Jim Zook, the director of Fairfax County's Department of Planning and Zoning, said the county is doing its best to act in the interest of the residents. "We wouldn't be here doing this absent of believing this is in the best interest for the community," said Zook. "I frankly think what we're doing is putting the community in a much better position," said Zook.

However, county staff and Hudgins left the legal issues largely unanswered. Without revealing too many details, Zook said the proposed PRC changes would go a long way to protect the county from lawsuits. "Trust me, there are legal concerns," said Zook, leaving the explanation of legal issues at that.

Goudie, a lawyer, said he understood Zook's approach to the answer, but warned it created trust issues between the county and the residents. "I understand that you don't want to tip the reasons [for lawsuits] to the developers. You are raising the legal issues, but not disclosing them, and that is creating a trust problem," he said.

Hudgins said the population factors needed to be modified to reflect today's realities. Reston's population would be better estimated under the proposed factors, and the county could better protect itself in the court if proactive steps are taken to reflect realities. "We have to do the due diligence to change to factors that reflect reality," she said.

Another county zoning administrator at the meeting, Elizabeth Perry, said that in proposing the changes in the amendment, the staff is taking a conservative approach. She said that the population calculated according to the proposed factors is still higher than the population of Reston calculated in the 2000 census.

OTHER ISSUES concerning the modification of population factors were raised on Saturday. Bob Parker, an Oak Hill resident, said it seems the factors are being changed without a good reason. "If you're going to look at factors because they are outdated you have to look at the change in other areas, driving habits, etc.," said Parker.

A number of other attendees also argued that traffic concerns had to be investigated before more people were allowed to live in Reston. "[Population] factors treat population, but ignore environmental degradation and driving habits," said Corrigan. He said that it is probably true that there are fewer people living in dwelling units than the 1975 factors take into account, but it is also true that there are more cars per person than in 1975, as is the number of miles driven by each person. "The county staff recommendation does not address this side of the equation," he said.

Vice President of RCA, Marion Stillson, also spoke of the need to include traffic-related data in the population factors. "Reston currently has the equivalent of 99,206 population, in terms of our impact on the roads," said Stillson. She said Reston roadways were congested because the driving habits have changed between the time the PRC was written and now. Stillson urged the county to delay making changes to the population factors before reviewing the ordinance. "Do it right and do a review of the PRC first, then review the density and the cap," she said.

Zook warned that there were roughly 4,100 units left to be built in Reston before it reaches its density cap. The proposed changes would give the county increased control over where the additional 4,100 units would be built, as well as increased control over other new development. "Increased control at the expense of 7,600 more people," he said.

Corrigan argued that the other two proposed changes allowed more control to the county, and that population factors did not need to be changed for the time being. "There is no reason [the other two points] can't be independently implemented, and they should be implemented as quickly as possible to bring some control over the 4,106 units that can be developed under the current cap and factors," said Corrigan. "However, let's leave the cap and the factors alone for now, and we [can] have a larger discussion," he added.