The waterfront area of Reston's Lake Anne Village Center.  Image by Paython Chung licensed under Creative Commons.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission is about to take up a proposal to change some of the zoning in Reston and allow for more people to live in certain areas near transit. Known as “Planned Residential Communities (PRC),” the proposal would raise the person-per-acre cap across those areas from 13 to 15.

I've been covering the PRC debate for a long time now. The commission is finally meeting after about a year's delay, thanks to backlash from groups around Reston who don't like the idea of more people moving here.

RestonNow recently ran a list of reasons not to raise the cap written by Dennis Hays, one of the main organizers against the proposal. One of the recurring themes in his article is that Fairfax County is updating its density limit prematurely before the community has the chance to understand what's going on and weigh in.

That sounds frustrating, but it's not a lack of coordination or communication from the county that leaves people wondering what will happen. It's the simple fact that no matter what the PRC limits are, the county can't zone its way to a specific vision of the future. It would be disingenuous for it to say that it could.

Reston's founder was a-ok with density

Fairfax County won't tell us what's going to happen at various PRC sites around Reston because no matter what the zoning says, the sites are all still privately owned (like most of the homes and shops across the country). If the owners of Hunter Woods or South Lakes village centers want to redevelop, that's their prerogative—just like anyone who owns their own home might choose to sell it or stay. It's not possible to predict what they'll all do.

That was the goal behind the establishment of the PRC in the first place. According to Fairfax County's staff report, the PRC was introduced in Reston to give builders flexibility in what they wanted to design. The report says:

The PRC District at the time of its establishment was distinct from other, more traditional zoning districts in that the provisions used population density to govern the overall size and character of the community required that the district be established under a single ownership or control; and afforded flexibility to the single master developer to transfer unused density from one development to another within the PRC District.

You can see the evidence of this flexibility today across Reston, which boasts a wide variety of housing types. That's not because of anything Fairfax County did, but because that's how Robert Simon, the founder of Reston wanted it.

Simon's original design allowed some density to be transferred in order to keep other land open for recreational uses. Other groups own many of those sites now, and the same dynamic can play out if the new owners decide they'd like to do something different.

One big change since Simon's day has actually reversed where Reston can be redeveloped intensely. Now the only places slated to become more dense are areas close to the Dulles Toll Road and Silver Line stations (itself under a separate zoning than PRCs), and commercial sites like areas just north of Reston Town Center or Reston's Village Centers, which don't have any homes today.

Notably, it doesn't include many areas where people's homes are now—though that's not what some activists would have you believe.

Zoning can only predict broad trends

Hays asserts that “the county can’t say specifically where the development allowed by their increased cap will go,” but that simply isn't true. The maps provided by Fairfax County since the beginning clearly show where changes might happen. Fairfax County isn't being more specific simply because applications for redevelopment haven't come through for every site.

In a different RestonNow letter, Reclaim Reston and Coalition for a Planned Reston member Bruce Ramo repeats similar misinformation: “If the zoning density cap is lifted, the ability of the community to push back on significant high-density development in our established residential neighborhoods effectively will be eliminated.” Again, the map shows this is untrue.

The Reston PRC is both the Yellow and the Orange sections on the map. But the only parts changing are the orange ones.  Image by Fairfax County.

Zoning can't totally predict the precise future, but it does tell us Reston's lower density residential neighborhoods will be almost completely off-limits to development, with growth instead clustering in Reston's town and village centers.

What's this really about?

Staking out such an early position against any changes to something as technical as the PRC limit the opposition is revealing. These activists are not so much concerned about the nuts and bolts of zoning in Reston as they are about rolling back changes (real and imagined) that have occured here and across the region at large.

That's why there are complaints that Fairfax County isn't doing enough to mitigate traffic, while the same people rail against developments designed to be walkable and transit accessible as evidence of the county somehow forcing people to give up their cars. That's why they're also arguing that letting more people live in Reston somehow poses an “existential threat” to everyone living there today.

This debate isn't really over a specific number for a specific part of the zoning code. It's about the identity of a community and how well it can adapt to changes. That's an important debate, but cloaking it in technicalities makes it harder to talk about.

Zoning can't predict the future, and we shouldn't attack proposals for what they simply can't do. That is going to be important to remember, as candidates for the Board of Supervisor's seat are already campaigning on issues related to development and affordable housing. If you're interested in weighing in on this issue, the Planning Commision meets on January 23 at 7 pm.