Fairfax County’s land use process relies on two documents, the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Ordinance, as the basis for determining all land uses in the county. The Plan is a guide for decision-making, and anticipates change over a 20-year period. The Ordinance contains specific regulations to implement the Plan. Interestingly, the Commonwealth of Virginia mandates that every county have a Comprehensive Plan, but there are no similar requirements for counties to have a Zoning Ordinance. The Plan can make recommendations for types of land use, and for transportation, parks, and similar amenities, but the Ordinance is the mechanism for actual development.
In order to foster recent amendments to the Plan, especially in revitalization areas, Tysons, and Reston, the Ordinance must be amended. Under consideration since 2005 are amendments to increase FAR, or Floor Area Ratio, in certain districts. Floor Area Ratio is calculated by the floor area of a building, divided by the land area it sits on; thus, a 50,000 square foot building on 100,000 square feet of land would have a .5 FAR. The building could be configured as a one or two-story, or higher, but the FAR would be the same.
The typical shopping center built in the 20th century could contain a million square feet of development splayed across acres of asphalt parking lot to accommodate the automobile. Today’s designs can put that same million square feet on a fraction of the same acreage by building taller structures – office, residential, and retail — wrapped around parking garages, and still leave room for green open space. That design, however, would require a change to the Ordinance. Focusing such development in certain areas – not everywhere – can result in more walkable neighborhoods, open space and urban parks, and less asphalt.
But it’s hard getting there. Proposed amendments to the Ordinance in areas designated PDC (Planned Development Commercial) and PRM (Planned Development Residential Mixed Use) would permit a higher FAR in certain limited circumstances, require the inclusion of cellar space in FAR calculations with certain exceptions (currently, cellar area is not counted), and clarify existing parking provisions and expand to include residential uses in Commercial Revitalization Districts. Higher FAR would not be applied automatically to any property; a rezoning application always is required, and that also includes a robust public process. Trends indicate that younger residents, especially, will be looking for a more urban living environment during the next decades, and the amendments would help move future development in that direction.
Past generations moved from rural land use patterns to villages and towns, and then to cities. In mid-century, the suburban concept took hold and remains strong today. In most areas, stable suburban neighborhoods are anticipated to remain suburban, but the commercial centers will have residential amenities, too. Bringing people closer to where they live, work, and play, where they can walk, bike, or use public transportation, rather than a single occupant vehicle, is important for the future, not only of Fairfax County, but for any jurisdiction that values smart growth principles, and translates them to action.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]