F.C. Council Determines No Big Rewrite, Just ‘Tweaks’ for Special Exception Laws

In what looked like it could shape up to be the first major overhaul of City government operations by the new Falls Church City Council and its new mayor Nader Baroukh turned out to be only an information sharing session and agreement that, at best, only some “minor tweaks” need to be made to the City’s “special exception” ordinances that have allowed for the major mixed use development projects in downtown Falls Church since 2001.

The ordinances came up for “review” tonight by a joint work session of the City Council and Planning Commission, with such a mixed use project, the Gateway project for N. Washington St. of the Akridge Company, set to come up for consideration soon. That project was originally slated for tonight’s work session, but was postponed pending a refresher and possible changes to the City’s current “special use” provisions.

The new Council’s appetite for a major overhaul was doused by the comments of newcomer Ira Kaylin following the City staff’s explanation of how the current laws work. A former member of the City’s Economic Development Authority, Kaylin said he has “examined the measures carefully” and said they “are a good model,” and the process with them “works quite well.”

At fundamental issue, as Planning Commissioner Lindy Hockenberry pointed out, is the “philsophical” issue of residential vs. commercial development in the City, “This needs to be put out there, to be brought to the open, to avoid polarization in the community,” she said.

Council member and former mayor Robin Gardner said she hoped there would not be a reversion to the approach of the 1990s, when the City insisted on only commercial development in its commercially-zoned corridors and “the market wasn’t there for it.” Removing the “special exception” approach now won’t encourage commercial development now, either she said.

It was when the City government recognized the needs of the market and fashioned the “special exception” process in 2000 that the momentum developed for the succession of large-scale projects, The Broadway, The Byron, Pearson Square, the Reed Building, The Spectrum and the “Flower Building” that have salvaged the City’s flagging residentially-derived revenues in the current recession.