Lake Anne Plaza in Reston.  Image by Payton Chung.

Fairfax zoning officials say they will not back off from commitments they’ve already made, despite pressure to allow fewer new homes in Reston. Officials in Fairfax's Department of Planning and Zoning recently responded to two groups that want to change or reverse zoning updates that would allow more density — changes that would mean going back on plans and compromises already made, some as recently as 2015.

Restonians already decided what they want the community to look like

When the Silver Line began construction in 2009, Fairfax County recognized that there was an opportunity to help Reston continue growing close to transit, and to help existing communities deal with bigger changes coming down the middle of the Dulles Toll Road.

Officials worked on updating the master plan through a complicated process that involved extensive community input. It didn’t officially wrap up until 2015, six years later.

The master plan the community agreed on was a broad outline of what they wanted Reston to look like in the future. One of the major compromises was that most of the growth would take place either near the Dulles Toll Road and Silver Line or in Reston's Village Centers, which are scattered through the area.

Meanwhile, existing communities would mostly stay the same. According to Fred Selden, Fairfax County's head of zoning, the master plan actually down-zoned large parts of Reston that were originally developed as single-family homes (due to demand at the time), but that could have allowed denser housing going forward.

Some people forgot about that whole process

With the master plan adopted, it was time to update the technical language on the books that actually governs the zoning and density limits for Reston. The first step was to increase the limits in the Planned Residential Communities (PRCs) that govern how dense various areas in Reston can be.

Then people got mad. Even though the proposed change to the PRC is a technical one aimed at helping Reston meet the goals already laid out in the master plan, a lot of opposition coalesced around keeping density limits where they are.

In response, the Reston Association, the quasi-governmental board in charge of hyper-local issues, sent Fairfax County Zoning a letter with a list of requests and accommodations they wanted the county (which has ultimate authority over land use in Reston) to consider. The Coalition for a Planned Reston, a mix of private groups aimed at stopping most of the zoning changes, also sent their own letter.

A map of the PRC changes in Reston. Only the areas in Orange are seeing changes from what was the old limits. Image by Fairfax County.

Now Fairfax County has responded to both. Broadly, the county agrees with the desire to ensure that planned infrastructure can keep pace with new development. They also want to make sure there is opportunity for community input in upcoming projects.

But some of the more specific changes, like eliminating a planned connector road and rejecting specific development plans, were rejected. Doing so would make it harder to meet the goals laid out in the master plan and by founder Robert Simon's goals for Reston.

Here’s where the county agrees

One concern outlined in the letters is that some of language about upper density levels means that a building could be allowed with no upper limit on density. Zoning staff responded that was not the case, and agreed to look at the language to see where it could be more clear.

There were also requests to ensure that infrastructure improvements came at the same time as new development. Staff responded that they worked that into the master plan already, and will continue to do so.

There was also a request to provide periodic updates to what was happening in Reston, and to relay how it fit within what the master plan envisioned. The county says they plan to do that as well when the time comes.

Finally, the county responded to the claim that redeveloping Reston's Village Centers should be limited to what is currently commercial (i.e. just redesign the stores and leave the existing housing alone). Fairfax said that is already the case, but they would work to make that point more clear.

Here’s where they don't

Broadly, Fairfax County zoning officials want to make it clear that a lot of the concerns raised in the letter have been addressed in the master plan. While a master plan is not a sacred document that cannot be changed, it is important to maintain some consistency. It took about six years to simply write the new master plan, and it has been less than three since it was adopted. That's why zoning officials rejected some of the requests.

One big request was for a population cap set at 120,000 people. County staff responded that any number should be viewed as a population target, rather than a cap. Trying to cap a population is impractical since you can't prevent people from having babies or from moving to the area. A target, on the other hand, can help set reasonable expectations for how the area should grow.

Reston Parkway near Reston Town Center. Changes are already coming here with the office building in the foreground being the site of a future apartment building.  Image by Payton Chung.

The Coalition for a Planned Reston also wanted to guarantee that at least 20% of all new housing be affordable, citing the Tysons Corner master plan which has a 20% affordable housing rule. They also wanted to cut density limits for medium- and high-density development by up to half of the proposed density.

Fairfax County Zoning responded that this wouldn’t work because overall density planned for Tysons is much higher than what will be allowed in Reston.

With a big ratio of affordable housing programs but small overall housing limits, other requests became unworkable as well. Speeding up infrastructure improvements would be much harder if there are less people around to help pay for them. In order to provide things like improved transportation and increased school capacity, new homes have to be a broad mix of affordable and market rate.

The groups also requested that the Village Centers be redesigned to include more public space and to be more pedestrian-friendly, but this is unworkable for the same reasons. These density caps severely limit the ability to add housing, and would likely keep the Village Centers as strip malls.

Finally, there were two other specific requests. The first was to reject a proposed redevelopment of the St. John's Wood and keep the current lower-density community. They also wanted to remove a connector road between American Dream Way and Isaac Newton Square.

The connector road has spurred controversy because it may run through what is currently Hidden Creek Country Club's golf course, which was recently sold. The master plan affirms that both the golf course at Hidden Creek and Reston National on the southern side of the the Dulles Toll Road will remain golf courses, so residents have no need to worry about losing them.

For the time being, zoning officials say they won’t make major changes so soon after the master plan was adopted.

Let Fairfax County officials know that Reston should be allowed to grow

Nonetheless, since the release of the county’s letter there have been calls for continued public meetings over the PRC limits and other requests made by the Reston Association and private civic groups like the Coalition for a Planned Reston. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has since moved back plans to adopt the recommendations.

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