The last full review of the county’s Comprehensive Plan as it applies to McLean took place in 1998. After the Board of Supervisors authorized review of the Plan in regards to the approximately 230-acre “central” area, county, consultants and residents have been hard at work. Through a series of workshops, public hearings, dozens of meetings and the formation of a task force comprising McLean residents and representatives of civic groups, a draft Vision Plan was presented to the public in December of 2018. Working with that plan, the McLean Community Business Center (MCBC) task force is still at it, defining, fine-tuning, and gathering community input for consideration on updates to the Comprehensive Plan – the manual for the county’s planning and development.
At their eighth meeting on Monday, March 4 at the McLean Governmental Center, the collaborative group of residents and county staff had put forth what seemed to be a modest, four-item agenda. Kim Dorgan, the task force chair, partnering with Katrina Newtson with the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning had lined up a clarifying review of the zones that comprise the MCBC to be followed by a discussion of the 10 submitted suggestions for land use change received via a public commentary period, before ending with a discussion of the transect zones.
The “transect” is defined as a “series of zones that form the transition from less-densely populated portions of a defined area, leading to a denser, urban-type core.” The transect concept is a key element in the “smart growth” movement being used to re-think and re-develop population centers like McLean, or neighboring Tysons Corner.
Despite their best efforts, the members never got much past that clarification agenda item and the boundaries involved. Discussion of transects and the submissions would have to wait until the next meeting, scheduled for March 18.
FROM THEIR COMMENTARY and their questions, it’s obvious that the task force members have been doing their homework. There are a few members with significant related experience on their professional resumes, but not everyone in the group came on board with extensive knowledge of land use planning and even the county staff would be hard-pressed to claim an encyclopedic comprehension of the current Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan and the many related guidelines, legalities and scientific considerations that weave together to inform urban planning decisions.
Previous related experience or not, the members all come armed with an amazing knowledge of their place on the map – history, geographic highlights, and an orientation that would be the envy of any driver forced to work without a satellite navigation system. They must also possess a true dedication to their community. The amount of work and the time needed to fully understand the current situation and to develop and consider alternatives for future growth – even with the guidance and work of consultants Streetsense and county staff and experts – places the emphasis on the first word in the “task force” name of their group.
The county gets credit for starting them out with “Real Estate, Development, Design and Market Economics 101” workshops as the topics of the first two meetings in June of 2018 to ensure that the participants were all starting from a common point of reference and basic understanding of the complexities.
Still, as this latest meeting demonstrated, even with all that preparation and dedication, moving forward can be a difficult and frustratingly slow process. The review of what type of land use is allowable within each zone – “Center,” “General,” or “Edge” – was fairly straightforward, but things slowed down when the members began discussing the boundaries of each zone, where they might overlap and where and how to allow “bonus development” of higher structures when accompanied by agreed upon green or other public-use space.
Member Jack Wilburn proposes a “floating” bonus plan that allows more flexibility but avoids the scenario where “everyone is Center Zone” – possibly creating over-development and the loss of green space. Wilburn, member William Sudow and others also cautioned against stretching the Center Zone, which contains the majority of the commercial and higher density developments, fearing that such expansion would erode the “town center” concept and inhibit the accessibility and connectivity that forms the basis of the Vision Plan which met with general approval at the last public feedback session in December.
“You could wind up with these separated pockets of development, defeating the purpose and the plan,” said Wilburn. “We need to define the bonus areas to encourage strategic, connected assembly of development,” added Sudow.
"We need to condense the Center Zone, not spread it out,” agreed member Kelly Green Kahn. “That would defeat the purpose of a town center where people gather.” Kahn also put in a plug to keep service stations safe, regardless of zoning.
MORE WALKABLE OR NOT, residents still need their cars and the convenience of nearby filling stations.
Things bogged down a bit further when the notion of “caps” on height and density entered the discussion. One member reminded the group that public feedback seems to heavily favor capping both in future developments, while others, including Sudow, answered that a key principle of the study was to find ways to attract quality development not only with clear guidelines, but with opportunities for developers to create economically viable projects.
Task force chair Dorgan worked to keep the meeting on target, going around the table and asking for a non-official vote from each member on the designation of each area within the study parameters, with room for changes as the discussions continue and the submissions are reviewed.
Center, General and Edge zones were eventually marked – if not unanimously agreed upon – and the revised working map will be available on the County’s MCBC website shortly.
Although he gave his opinion on the refinements, member Ed Murn expressed concern that some of these designations and other decisions being put forth were not realistic options for developers and in some cases cost prohibitive for them. “We shouldn’t make willy-nilly designations just to categorize.”
Murn foresees future frustrations ahead if the county and the community’s plan offers something that really cannot be achieved or as member Rick Salopek puts it, is “actually disingenuous.”
Planning and Zoning’s Newtson acknowledged the need for as much accuracy as possible – particularly for the county to run valid test models on the impacts of any changes to the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinances and to develop mitigation recommendations for any potential negative side effects.
A senior staff member from the Fairfax County Department of Transportation supplied additional information which took many by surprise, saying that for the transportation test modelling, realistic foundations were critical since “there can only be one transportation test” because of costs and time involved.
There were 10 “submissions” (suggestions, recommendations, comments from the public received during the submission period which ended in November) slated for discussion, but which were moved to agenda items on March 18, when the task force meets again.
INCLUDED IN THE SUBMISSIONS were recommendations that street widths be narrowed in front of stores, smaller pocket parks be considered in lieu of one or two larger green spaces, and that residential, office and hotel usage should not be dictated on particular sites (MCBC-10).
Brian Clifford submitted MCBC-4, recommending increasing the FAR (the relationship between the size of the building and the size of the land parcel) intensity from .5 to 2.0 which would allow for mixed-use development versus only office and ground floor retail in the general location of 6861 Elm Street.
All of the submissions can be viewed on the county’s website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov and citizens are encouraged to review them along with all of the attendant documents.
The task force meetings are open to the public. “We want to hear from everyone,” said chair Dorgan.
The Vision Plan for the growth and possible transformation of McLean is still just that, but as Dorgan and the task force crew attest, “we have to make a start in order to get there.”