The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on March 23 at 4:30 p.m. on the new and modernized zoning ordinance (zMOD). A vote in favor would replace in its entirety the current 1978 zoning ordinance amended over 480 times. On March 9, the Board unanimously voted to defer the decision to its next full board meeting. No speakers will be heard on March 23, but the record remains open for written comments.
The Zoning Ordinance is an important document. At the Planning Commission Roundtable: zMOD, available online, Peter Murphy, Chairman of the Planning Commission, called the Zoning Ordinance: "One of the two probably important documents the Planning Commission and the Board use to make judgments on land use applications …This is the law. That's why it is so important." The second document, the Comprehensive Plan, is a guide, he said.
The process to bring the zMOD project to this step has been ongoing since 2018. The hope was to update the ordinance and make it an easily navigable document and more understandable. Staff focused on modernizing the permitted uses and regulation and removing gaps and inconsistencies.
“I have advocated for and strongly support simplifying and modernizing the zoning language to reduce regulations and complexities in the ordinances to make it easier for all residents to access online and understand County government information,” said Mount Vernon Supervisor Dan Storck. “The proposed modernized zoning ordinances provide clear organization, use plain language and reduce the size by almost 40% or 400 pages.”
At the March 9 Board of Supervisors Meeting, Carmen Bishop with the Department of Planning and Zoning, presented a detailed description of the zMOD project scope to modernize land uses and regulation and other revisions. Bishop kicked off her presentation saying that she heard testimony that people were not aware of the zMOD process. However, staff included a variety of robust outreach methods with the project.
Staff released new draft ordinances in installments to allow for more focus on individual sections. Outreach included 100 public meetings, a zMOD website, videos, newsletters, social media, listservs, and five different workgroups.
The March 9 Board of Supervisors meeting ended with a five-hour-long public hearing with 71 individuals voicing opinions on zMOD. Residents did not state resistance to all the recommendations in the nearly 700-page proposed zoning ordinance. However, most expressed concern with some of zMOD's staff recommendations, advertised options, and for issues such as accessory dwelling units, home-based businesses, and flags and flag poles.
Time and again, people weighed in that staff went too far on recommendations, stepping outside of the stated goals for the first phase of zMOD.
Katherine Ward, Co-Chair of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens' Associations, spoke on behalf of the organization with a membership of over 10,000 households. "Many of the staff-recommended changes simply did not sit well with us," Ward said. Giving so much authority to the zoning administrator "drastically impacts communities," Ward said. She mentioned Planning Commission Chairman Murphy's comment regarding home-based businesses and accessory dwelling units being approved at the zoning administrative level. This "just simply took the citizens out of the process," Ward said.
Mount Vernon Council of Citizens' Associations encouraged the Board to deny staff zMOD recommendations, and for the Board to support their recommended changes in the zMOD ordinance. "We believe that this will ensure Fairfax County remains a vibrant place for all of us to live and ensure that all our citizens have affordable, comfortable places to call home," Ward said.
Resident Eric Jones said the zMOD changes could exacerbate streets crowded with cars and homes built too near the edges of lot lines.
"This is going to be a very significant change and way of life for us as homeowners, renters, or otherwise in Fairfax County," Jones said. Staff at the code enforcement office is already overworked, he added.
The Board can review each item in zMOD Advertised Options for Consideration. For example, staff recommends that the size space for interior accessory dwelling units may be up to 800 square feet or 40% of the principle dwelling's gross floor area (whichever is less). Still, the Board can adopt any size of 500-1200SF and remain within the scope of Advertised Options.
The meeting ended with Chairman McKay letting supervisors know that they could submit more questions to staff.
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said, "I don't think in my 13 years on the board, I've ever heard such opposition to proposed changes."
Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) said, "I think we have a lot of work to do on this."
Storck said there are aspects of the proposal he does not endorse.
“I do not support some of the staff proposed changes, including restrictions on flags. I am still listening and looking for the right balance of flexibility and restrictions for home based businesses and for resident homeowners to provide affordable rental options to non-family members.”
The Board voted 10 to 0 to defer the decision until March 23.
The video presentation by staff at the virtual March 9 Board of Supervisors meeting can be found online starting at 3:40:34.