The Reston Association board divided over the density cap issue involving the Reston Planned Residential Community (PRC) Ordinance on Monday, Feb. 12.
While the directors voted to approve the proposed changes in the zoning process, they voted 4-2 in favor of establishing a task force to study the ordinance in its entirety before changing the population factors that determine Reston’s density.
"Our responsibility is towards our members, not whether the county loses a lawsuit," said director Rick Beyer (At-Large).
Milton Matthews, RA's CEO, warned that Reston is a part of Fairfax County. "We can’t remove ourselves from the county," he said. Matthews also added that he did not see a point in starting a task force when the county had already provided its recommendation for the new population factors, based on countywide data obtained in the 2000 census.
The directors voted on whether to publicly support the Fairfax County staff recommendations to amend the PRC Ordinance. They agreed on, and unanimously approved, all but one point of discussion. That same point, modifying the factors that determine Reston’s population according to an average number of people who live in a particular dwelling unit, has drawn passionate skeptics and supporters ever since the PRC Ordinance debate started last year.
THE COUNTY’S PROPOSAL argues that the factors need to be modified in order to better reflect today’s realities and afford it more control over future development.
Beyer argued that the ordinance needed a more comprehensive review, taking into account traffic and environment as well as the number of people living in Reston when determining its population factors.
"This is not about whether we are pro-growth or anti-development," said President Jennifer Blackwell (At-Large) before Monday night’s discussion began. "We aren’t here to solve the problem, we’re here to discuss our position on behalf of our members."
Beyer, Blackwell, Robin Smyers (Lake Anne/Tall Oaks) and Tim McMahon (At-Large) voted to recommend to the county that it set up a task force to perform a comprehensive review of the ordinance, and then recommend the new population factors. Thanks to the vote, the RA effectively took a position against county staff’s recommendation to modify the population factors at this point. The county argues it is trying to avoid possible lawsuits from the development community.
"We should get the factors consistent with what the realities are in Reston," said Bill Keefe (At-Large) as he offered a counter-point. He and Mark Watts (At-Large) voted against delaying the modification of the population factors. Keefe argued that the character of Reston could be greatly altered if the county is not allowed more control over the development, and that it needed to gain that control soon. He said that changing the population factors at this moment would allow county control over development of the remaining 4,100 units — and additional remaining units allowed when the factors are modified -— while also allowing a task force to review the entire ordinance. The task force could then propose their population factors when their work was done. Keefe also argued that Lake Anne, a community that is widely considered in need of new development, could suffer because the remaining units may be built in other places in Reston.
"I agree with your logic and the factors need to be updated," said Beyer in an answer to Keefe. "But they should be updated in a much more comprehensive fashion."
THE FOUR WHO voted against changing the factors at this point argued that the county should go ahead with its proposals on procedural issues, but leave the factors alone until a task force conducted a more comprehensive examination. The county recommends amending the development approval process from an administrative process through the Department of Public Works and Environmental services, to a legislative process through the Department of Planning and Zoning. The amendment would require proposed developments under the PRC Zoning to go through the county’s Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, allowing the community a chance for public input. At this moment, it is easy for a developer to get a development approved under the PRC Zoning because all the developer needs to do is satisfy an administrative checklist.
BEFORE TAKING the final vote, the board heard from three of its committees that looked into the PRC Ordinance issues, and from a number of its members. Joe Stowers said he was concerned about the lack of appreciation for the history of citizen involvement in the PRC Ordinance. He said that each of the three previous times that the ordinance was changed, there was a task force to review the ordinance. "The tradition, the legislative history, is the county sets up a task force and hears from all sides to see how the ordinance should be changed," said Stowers. Having said that, Stowers agreed with the county staff recommendations, and asked that the task force review the ordinance after implementing the new factors. "Let’s get the ordinance corrected because there is a threat," he said. He added that the task force could take a year or two to review the ordinance, and therefore the factors should be changed up front. "We’re really at risk if we wait that long," he said.
Arthur Hill of the Reston Planning and Zoning Committee, which in December voted 7-6 with two abstentions to recommend that the RA support the factors, urged the directors to support the county recommendation as it stands. "Procedural changes should be done, and it should be done yesterday. As it stands now, the public input [in the development approval process] is nothing," said Hill. He said delaying the changes on account of the factors is dangerous because Reston cannot afford the delay as developers are pushing their site plans through. "I don’t think we can afford to wait. In fact, I know we can’t afford to wait," said Hill.
He added that earlier on Monday he looked at a development proposal submitted to the county that would build 1,600,000 square feet on 10 acres of land off of Sunrise Valley Drive. The proposal does not carry with it any proffer conditions. "County staff has turned it down, but whether it can hold is another matter. But the public input into that, under the present statute, is nothing," said Hill. "We have to act, and we have to act now."
BEYER QUESTIONED the recommendation of Reston’s Planning and Zoning Committee, since the vote in the committee was almost evenly split. He said the 7-6 vote did not constitute consensus on the issue, and therefore the committee could not really make a strong recommendation. Hill answered that in the end none of that would matter, as the county’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors would not ask how the RA got to its position, but simply listen to whatever its position on the issue is. He added they would only look to the staff recommendations, as outlined in the proposal. Hill also warned that all but about 800 of the remaining 4,100 units are already spoken for, under process for approval at the county. He added that amending the PRC Ordinance under the currently proposed language would also allow the county more control over commercial development, some of which is under the PRC zoning.
Dave Edwards, co-chair of the RA’s Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC), said his committee narrowly voted against changing the population factors. He said that if a task force is formed to review the ordinance, then there is less of a chance that a court would rule against the county if a developer claimed the population factors were unrealistic. "If [the ordinance is] reviewed, [then it is] not under fire in a legal challenge," said Edwards.
He added that now is the right time to take a comprehensive look at the ordinance. "Everybody has spent so much time reviewing it that we are as close to understanding it as we’re going to get," said Edwards. He said the current population factors are old history and needed to be changed, but suggested a more comprehensive study to determine the factors. Edwards added that the wording of the county staff’s amendment proposal did not allow the TAC to take into account data such as the change in number of cars on the roads over the last 40 years.
The directors also heard from RA’s Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), who recommended that the factors should not be modified to accommodate more people into Reston. "We should not go forward with the changes unless the watershed is protected," said Ken Andrews of the EAC. However, higher density is not necessarily bad for the environment, EAC members told the directors. A high rise in place of a parking lot can benefit the environment if the runoff is properly controlled. However, waivers are often granted to developers on the environmental standards.
THE RA BOARD ALSO heard from Frank de la Fe, Hunter Mill District’s representative on the Fairfax County Planning Commission. He said the whole PRC Ordinance debate started because roughly two years ago he and others in the county noticed that Reston was quickly approaching its 13 people per acre density cap. He argued that bringing more residential development to Reston might actually improve its traffic woes. "There is no cap on offices, people will be coming to work here. The more people live here and work here, the less traffic they generate," said de la Fe, arguing that most of Reston’s traffic comes from people passing through Reston on their daily commute. Also, added de la Fe, the developers will push their plans as hard as possible to come to Reston. "Reston is a highly desirable place to work and live," he said.
De la Fe said that when the PRC Ordinance is reviewed, it only takes into account people, because the population determines the density. All of the other zoning districts, not zoned PRC, take into account the number of units — rather than people per unit — to determine their density. Since people determine density, he said, the county could not take into consideration traffic and environmental concerns. That could only be accomplished by reviewing the entire comprehensive plan, which is a lengthy process.