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Housing Work Continues

Planning Commission finishes majority of discussion on housing amendment.

The Planning Commission wrapped up most of its work on the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment to address the county’s housing policies, Monday, June 11, leaving only a few issues undecided.

During Monday's work session, the commission focused on how to encourage for-profit companies to step forward and meet some of the county’s housing needs and how to address those needs without unnecessarily growing the government staff. Commissioners also questioned eminent domain and whether the policies would give the county the right to condemn land simply to build more affordable housing.

"I think we have to be careful where we go here," Commissioner Helena Syska (Sterling) said.

In April, the Board of Supervisors initiated the proposed amendment in order to broaden and update the countywide housing policies, including clarifying the need for affordable housing and creating direction for programs to address the need.

In 2006, the median income for the Washington, D.C., area was $90,300. The Comprehensive Plan amendment would focus on those residents whose income falls below the median.

BEFORE THE COUNTY’S affordable dwelling unit ordinance was in place, a developer along Belmont Ridge Road wanted to construct some affordable single-family homes. In order to get those homes constructed quickly, county staff fast-tracked the application process.

Under the proposed housing policies, the county would have the ability to establish similar incentives, including reductions or waivers of development fees or capital facilities contributions, density bonuses and an expedited application review.

Members of the Housing Advisory Board told the commission that the incentives were needed to bring the developers to the table. Commissioner John H. Elgin (Leesburg), however, said the policy language needed to be stronger so for-profit companies would feel confident in the benefits they would get.

"I would much rather see us be proactive instead of reactive," he said. "I am trying to get the developer to come forward and actually do some of these things."

TO CREATE another way of getting people below 100 percent of the area median income into housing in the county, staff suggested creating public and private partnerships with local employers similar to something that is done in Arlington County.

In Arlington, the county works with the top employers, putting together packages that offer incentives, such as helping employees with down payment costs.

"The packages can include anything to make it easier and more affordable to purchase a home," Sarah Coyle Etro, housing policy manager, said. "You work with the employer because hopefully they have something to bring to the table to help."

Some commissioners, however, were hesitant to move forward with the employers because they did not want to create the county as the ultimate housing authority.

"All I am seeing is the growth of county staff," Elgin said. "More bureaucracy to get it done. I am wondering where we are going to get the money from."

Commissioner Barbara Munsey (Dulles) said she was concerned about overstepping and getting involved in a company’s private operations.

"I don’t want to do anything to limit the private companies from doing things to help their own employees," she said.

Staff members said that the programs could also apply to county employees, with Loudoun County acting as one of the employers involved.

"It is only to assist employers in getting their workers living near where they work," Michelle Krocker, a member of the county’s Housing Advisory Board (HAB), said.

THE COUNTY STAFF’S recommendation that the county look at public land as an option to build more affordable housing, caused some problems among the commission, from the definition of public land to how that would affect proffered land. Members of the HAB at the meeting said if public land is used it should go to people with special needs, such as the disabled and the elderly, and those whose income falls below 70 percent of the area median income.

"Public land is a valuable resource and it brings a huge subsidy to the housing needs," Krocker said. "If you are going to use it, it should go to those who most need it."

Some commissioners, however, were concerned that the use of pubic land would create an eminent domain issue.

"I don’t want any land taken for eminent domain for this purpose," Elgin said.

Syska said she was concerned that developers would proffer land for a public use and while residents would expect a park or a school, would end up with public housing, but the HAB member said the policy was only intended to give the county a list of what public land could be available for housing.

"Building housing on public land does not necessarily mean public housing," Krocker said. "There are lots of mechanisms for utilizing this resource."

Commissioner Nancy Hsu (Blue Ridge) suggested the staff work further on the public land policy and come back before the commission with clearer language.

The commission has a work session scheduled for Monday, June 25, at 6 p.m., where it can continue its work on the housing policies.