Local Commentary

Editorial: No Forest for Trees

The Falls Church Planning Commission voted against far more than a perceived parking deficiency when it turned down the site plan for the 174-unit affordable housing package Monday night, bringing the entire project to the brink of extinction.

It is an ironic outcome after an arduous organizing effort by the non-profit Falls Church Housing Corporation, at the cost of an irretrievable $2 million by them to carry out the wishes of the city government to provide affordable housing, of countless hours put in by City Hall staff at taxpayer expense to help craft a project it could support, and of two votes of approval after many public hearings and tedious work sessions by the elected City Council.

All of this effort, money and time was effectively vetoed Monday by a body of seven lay citizens, appointed not elected, to the City’s Planning Commission (six of whom voted against it). Hardly equivalent to some higher court, this non-professional body had demonstrated its opposition to the plan in numerous earlier votes to recommend against it, and much of its same rationale, on policy not site plan grounds, seeped into its conversation Monday.

To the extent this was prevalent in Monday’s meeting, the body has placed the City at potential legal risk, stepping out of bounds of its assigned legal task with respect to the site plan approval process. The applicant retains the right to sue the City, on behalf of its considerable time and money invested to date, for the failure of the Planning Commission to stick to the specifics of the site plan. Site plan approvals are intended to involve a collaborative effort between the Planning Commission and the applicant to make the project work, once it has been approved by both the City staff and the popularly-elected City Council. It should not involve, as it did Monday, an adversarial posture by the Planning Commission resulting in a flat rejection of the plan without positive suggestions or plans for winning its OK.

There may still be time for the applicant to return to the Planning Commission with some modifications to achieve the site plan approval. But such an effort seems daunting, given the Commission’s seemingly unyielding opposition to the prevailing national trend to lower parking requirements at affordable housing facilities. The Commissioners Monday ignored the considerable documentation of this trend, including specific projects in Arlington and Montgomery County.

But as it stands right now, this rogue Planning Commission has been blind to the forest for the trees, exhibiting tunnel vision while failing to consider the bigger picture; namely, the benefits of the project as oft affirmed by the elected City Council, including the opportunity to attract and retain quality teachers, City and private sector employees, and to embrace much-desired income and other forms of diversity.