Around F.C.

Big Turnout For Meeting On Changes To T-Zones

After the News-Press deadline last night, the Falls Church Planning Commission was scheduled to take up the controversial issue of modifications to the City’s transition zones ordinance. 

Last Thursday, Falls Church residents gathered at Mary Riley Styles Public Library for a community forum on the City’s proposed changes to the City Council transition zones, or “T-Zones.”  Proposed changes are considered problematic to existing homeowners here, as they are perceived to encroach on existing residential areas, and resulted in a strong showing of residents, with more than 50 in attendance at the event, hosted by The League of Women Voters.  

Similar turnout was expected for the Planning Commission meeting last night, where recommendations to the City Council were finalized.  City Council will decide later this month whether to approve the changes.

T-Zones consist of about 24 acres of land in total and are mostly along N. Washington St. and Park Ave., with some satellite areas along the outskirts of City limits. Their purpose are to provide a buffer between quiet residential neighborhoods and the intensity of the major thoroughfares of Broad St. and Washington St. Proposed changes would allow for an increase in townhomes, small multi-unit structures like duplexes, and retail one would expect to find along a small town’s main street, such as flower shops, boutiques, book stores, and eateries. Not on the list of acceptable commercial uses are parking lots, boarding houses, lodging houses, and rooming houses.

The meeting revealed significant unrest and confusion among residents, who expressed dissatisfaction with the City’s level of engagement with the community so far, as well as concerns that proposed changes weren’t addressing needed “missing middle” housing.

Frustration also surrounded an apparent misconception that the process is nearing completion, when in fact this process will likely go through at least another full round of review after the Council decision on adopting the proposals.  If adopted, the changes will be extensive enough to constitute a new “first reading” by City Council, followed by another round of community input, meetings, and review.

Over fifty community members showed up for a T-Zone update from the Planning Commission. (Photo: City of Falls Church)

“It’s tough,” said Paul Stoddard, Director of Planning for the City. “There’s a lot of terminology wrapped up in everything.”  He pointed to canopy coverage minimums and impervious surface limits as one example of confusion.

Another concern expressed by community members was whether the City was doing anything to encourage home ownership over renting. Stoddard explained that Virginia code excludes the City from mandating certain elements of development, such as whether units are available for purchase or as rentals, but that T-zone requirements, can influence the outcome.  

Only four percent of the 6,077 housing units in the City of Falls Church are townhomes, duplexes, or quadplexes;  42 percent are single family detached, and 54 percent are apartments or condominium units.  Stoddard says most developers opt to sell small building units as condos, usually reserving the hassle of managing rentals in properties with significantly more units.

The proposed changes to residential uses in the T-zones include replacing a three-acre minimum lot size for townhouses with a 1-acre maximum lot size. This would encourage the development of small, independent rows of townhomes.

Under the changes, no new single-family homes would be allowed, with a “grandfather” clause proposed for existing homes. Townhouses will be permissible through special use permits, and up to four-unit buildings will be allowed by right, within the smaller lot size.

Several changes have been proposed to the height, setback, impervious surface, canopy cover, and building coverage parameters for both commercial and residential buildings.  Most changes are being proposed largely to accommodate smaller lot sizes, such as increasing the building coverage percentage of a lot from 40 percent to 60 percent.

A tree canopy minimum of 15 percent and an impervious surface maximum of 80 percent will also be introduced.  The current 45-foot maximum height would be replaced by a 40 foot maximum, with a 50 foot maximum after a 10 foot step-back. 

Perhaps the most significant change relates to the affordable housing efforts in the T-zones.  City Council initially recommended requiring that 10 percent of all new homes meet affordable or workforce housing AMI requirements. The Planning Commission is recommending removing this requirement, and replacing it with a new “T-zone overlay taxing district.” Under this proposal, any additional tax revenue received as a result of T-zone improvement would be earmarked for the development of affordable housing.

If the Planning Commission recommendations were approved this week and adopted by City Council, a new recommendation and review process will likely begin with a Council rereferral in early March, followed by more rounds of Council review, Planning Commission recommendations, and opportunities for public input.