A better process produces better results. Image from UrbanReviewSTL.

Both Fairfax and Prince George’s Counties are considering revamping their land use planning processes to make them more transparent and less cumbersome. At their June retreat, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors heard a staff presentation recommending an overhaul of its cumbersome, piecemeal Area Plans Review process. The Washington Post reports that Prince George’s is looking at streamlining its development review process, and making it simpler for laypeople to understand how to participate in the process. If the jurisdictions follow through, this is good politics and even better planning. Land use politics is a minefield, and it can be extremely difficult for well meaning elected officials to make the best decisions for their communities when they face a clamor of angry citizens campaigning against change (think health care reform). Citizens are often left in the dark about development proposals until they have already well advanced. If you can’t steer change, you fear it. Fairfax County has put a lot of effort into engaging citizens on specific development proposals and large-scale projects, such as the redesign of Tysons Corner. But the land use planning process tends to be highly technical and oriented toward landowners rather than citizens. Staff reports on rezonings are long on technical language and short on pictures. Unless you are one of the handful of citizens with the dedication to serve on a land use advisory committee and wade through the meetings and verbiage, your only opportunity to influence the development process is to speak at a public hearing — by which time the outcome has usually already been decided. Fairfax;s Area Plans Review process exemplifies the problems. Landowners who want to develop their land in ways not currently permitted by zoning generally have to go through an Area Plans Review. Planning staff and citizen advisory committees review the proposals and make recommendations to the Planning Commission. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, the recommendations are incorporated in the comprehensive plan. Then the developer must apply to rezone the land. But often the process doesn’t please anybody. The developer is unhappy because the process takes so long. Citizens are unhappy because the information they receive is packaged abstractly, relating to density, type of usage, and other things that don’t really represent to a layperson what the development will do. And the process is not well advertised, so that even the few citizens who do learn of rezoning proposals have little or no influence because the process by then is so far along. Kudos to Fairfax for looking at a new approach. Here are some recommendations:

  • Provide visual representations of different development proposals and possibilities, so citizens can better choose and communicate what they like, and don’t like.
  • Identify both “off-limits” areas where there will be little or no new development, and areas where new development will be concentrated — such as transit areas and major commercial corridors.
  • For priority development areas, get consensus on basic development principles and then provide incentives and a “fast track” for development proposals that meet these principles. Arlington has done this, so can Fairfax.