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Great Falls Has Development Standards

Comprehensive plan, community involvement, designed to keep semi-rural character.

Georgette McKee and her son Maxwell, an eighth grader at Cooper Middle School, pick up trash along Georgetown Pike.

Georgette McKee and her son Maxwell, an eighth grader at Cooper Middle School, pick up trash along Georgetown Pike. Photo by Alex McVeigh.

— With an area of just under 18 square miles and one of the lowest densities in the county, Great Falls is designed to have a semi-rural character. The Great Falls Citizens Association, a non-partisan committee made up of residents, has as a primary goal to "preserve the historic, low density semi-rural character of Great Falls and its natural resources."

Great Falls is zoned as a mixture of residential and commercial, located at the areas around the intersections of Walker Road and Georgetown Pike and Walker Road and Colvin Run Road. Bill Harvey, chair of the GFCA’s Land Use and Zoning Committee, says his group’s agenda comes at the intersection of the comprehensive plan and the GFCA’s mission statement.

"The types of land-use narrow the available choices for development, there are only a handful of uses that can go on each piece of land," he said. "Ideally, each piece of land will be developed with what is the highest and best use, and that starts with what is legally permissible. Barring legal action, such as a zoning change or the granting of a special exception, a lot of possibilities are impossible."

Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville), said that development in Great Falls comes with a lot of community input.

"Great Falls has a very community-driven land-use review process," he said. "Any applicant that comes in, we ask that they meet with the GFCA, but there are very few applications that come in because there isn’t much zoning in place to accommodate new development."

He cited the new Great Falls Fire Station as an example of locally inspired design.

"The fire station is a good example of how the community played a huge part in working with the county, finalizing the look to fit into the semi-rural character here," he said.

A SOLUTION to the wastewater issues at the commercial center could bring change to Great Falls. Currently running on septic fields, many of which are not functioning to full capacity, alternatives such as a sewer line or a private, onsite treatment system have been considered.

There has been much community debate about whether a sewer would be a precursor to increased density, since the current septic fields in most residential properties prevent dense development.

"It’s sort of the ultimate safeguard, it’s literally impossible to start stacking houses without a sewer system," said David Padgett of Great Falls. "While I think a sewer would be best for the commercial district, keep them running and allow for some future flexibility. I don’t think there is an easy answer, but my preference would be to play it safe when it comes to keeping development to a minimum."

Harvey says the installation of a sewer would involve "a fundamental change" to the comprehensive plan.

"There are a lot of questions, who’s going to pay for it?" he said. "If we set up a sewer district, how will that work? Who pays? Who has access?"

Foust said that while the community discussed various possibilities in late 2010 through mid 2011, "It’s stalled right now while the business community of Great Falls decides what makes the most sense for them." He said, "There are a lot of steps to making a final decision, but the first move will come from business owners."