Market Street and Fountain Square in Reston. A good example of mixed-use modernism.  Reston town center by Payton Chung licensed under Creative Commons.

Despite some strong backlash, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is moving ahead with its original proposal to rewrite part of its zoning code to allow for more growth in Reston. Increases to certain density caps suddenly became a contentious issue last year, even though they were just technical changes to fit with the updated Reston Master Plan.

Fairfax needs to increase the number of people allowed to live near the Silver Line

Reston was founded as a place where people could live their whole lives. The ability to turn ill-used space and old buildings into places for people to live and work is a good way to help carry out that vision for a greater number of people.

Fairfax County began rewriting the master plan for Reston around the time Silver Line construction began. After a long process, the county came forward with a plan that capitalized on opportunities to create new communities along the route of the Silver Line, which is mostly dominated by office parks and parking lots today.

In exchange, the county also ensured that areas that are now mostly single-family neighborhoods will not be subject to the same intensive redevelopment. That way, the county can plan for the coming growth in a way that reduces some of the negative impacts that can come from a rapidly-growing population.

To move ahead with that vision, the county needs to update Reston's “Planned Residential Community” (PRC) limits. The PRC limit is a tool used to give a concrete number for how dense an area of Reston should be. The county's proposal is to raise the overall PRC number from 13 people per acre to 15, while leaving numbers in specific areas alone.

Fairfax says it needs to raise because Reston's current population today is about 12 people per acre. Without this change, the county cannot achieve the goals it set out in the master plan.

Upping the density caps was surprisingly contentious

The county's announcement drew the ire of a few different civic groups in Reston who have now banded together under the name “The Coalition for a Planned Reston.” They argue that the raising PRC limits would lead to too much development across Reston and exacerbate existing problems like traffic congestion or crowded schools.

In response, they asked Fairfax to set a population cap for Reston, reverse some of the changes agreed upon in the master plan (eliminating the need to raise PRC limits at all), and to commit to promised infrastructure improvements.

After a series of letters and meetings, the county responded that it would not commit to a population cap, nor would it change Reston's Master Plan so early after it had just been adopted. It would work on some of Reston's infrastructure issues.

That back-and-forth delayed the overall process by about a year, and could have led to a new recommendation to the Board of Supervisors to keep the PRC limits at 13 or only increase them slightly. Over the summer, the County Planning Commission settled on a new limit of 15 people per acre (it had originally mulled making it up to 16 people per acre).

Areas in Orange are mostly retail and offices and that's what is slated to change with the adoption of new PRC limits. 

Here's what's next

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted to go ahead and schedule public hearings on the PRC changes to take place in 2019. That's a critical step, because it means that Fairfax is holding firm on allowing new homes in Reston for people to live in.

The first meeting is scheduled for January 23 before the County's Planning Commission, which will then make a final recommendation to the County Board of Supervisors. Then it will hold a hearing of its own on March 5 and go ahead with its final vote.

Even if the PRC limits are raised, that won't lead to immediate changes. Project specifics like design, affordable housing requirements, or transportation changes all need to go through their normal processes.

There is still a chance the Planning Commission could change its recommendation or the Board of Supervisors could not vote the proposal in. Nonetheless, this news is welcome for people who want Reston to continue to be an open and welcoming community.