Lake Anne Plaza in Reston. The PRC allowed this tall building to be built.  Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

Reston's debate over a routine but nonetheless controversial zoning change may be over for now, as the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors deferred action on the matter earlier in March. Opponents feared the update would lead to Reston changing too much, but the zoning rule at the heart of the debate was never meant to address the issues many thought it did.

Why did Restonians feel so strongly about a mundane zoning change?

When the Silver Line was under construction, Fairfax County started to think about how it would fit into the future of Reston. Originally developed as a planned community by Robert Simon in the 1960s, the area has since gone through profound changes, like the rest of Fairfax. It's situated along what has become a strong employment belt along the Dulles Toll Road.

Over a number of years, Reston's master plan was updated with input from community members, and included some big changes from what was in Simon's original plan. The new master plan preserved existing density limits across most of the residential areas, and compensated for the need for more housing in two areas: along forthcoming Metro stations, and in a few of Reston's Village Centers which dot the area. Some of the Village Centers have housing mixed with shops today, while others don't.

Density limits across Reston are governed by a tool called a "Planned Residential Community," or PRC. After the master plan was adopted, Fairfax County planners proposed raising the average density cap so that Reston could meet the goals it had agreed upon in that update. Functionally, the PRC limits would have been raised from 13 to 16 people per acre only in various Village Centers and commercial areas. Other areas—including most residential ones—would see no change.

Nonetheless, the move caused a big outcry and some raucous public meetings. The issue was delayed so that issues could be ironed out, but opposition only escalated. Finally, after a five-hour meeting, the Fairfax County planning commission decided to recommend against the proposal to raise the PRC limit, citing the intense opposition.

Unfortunately, opponents' tendency to mislead made the entire proposal toxic. A recap from RestonNow covers planning commissioner James Hart's reaction:

Hart also tried to tackle the controversy surrounding the proposal, saying that “an unusual amount of misinformation and confusion” from freelance experts helped fuel the concerns. “All of that antidevelopment frustration was focused on this particular amendment,” he said.

This wasn't the first time something like this had happened. At an informational meeting about the change in 2017, opponents shouted down county officials as they tried in vain to keep the discussion focused on what was actually proposed, instead of what people envisioned.

Between now and then, I've covered several other instances where misinformation captured the public imagination, including erroneous comparisons of Reston's likely density to New York City's, and spurious claims that county staff weren't telling residents what they knew about what their community would look like in the future. After that Februrary planning meeting, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors—which would have taken up the proposal soon—instead dropped it.

Cathy Hudgins, the outgoing supervisor who represents the area that includes Reston, asked for the delay. She had originally supported the proposal, but cited the opposition and pointed out that PRC changes got tangled up with other issues, including another controversial proposal to one day redevelop one of Reston's golf courses.

But Reston keeps growing—so what happens now?

The irony behind such a big fight is that not updating the PRC numbers won't really do much to disprupt the changes already happening in Reston. Areas that would have been affected by the change can still redevelop under existing limits. The PRC is written to be flexible, so changes like taller buildings and a mix of uses like apartments next to shops can be approved under existing guidelines. That's actually happening today—redevelopment is currently underway at Tall Oaks Village Center.

For opponents who got involved because of concerns over parking, open space, infrastructure, or reasons beyond the mostly technical changes proposed in the original amendment face some bad news: All of that energy might have been wasted, because the PRC was never meant to address those issues.

The problem is that as parcels develop, that limits the development potential in other parcels and could lead to some areas stagnating. Reston could apply to change its zoning from a Planned Residential Community to a different zoning type available in the county. While that could certainly end some of the drama around PRC limits (because the PRC would simply be removed from Reston's zoning language), it's not something to be taken lightly. County staff phrased it like this in their report:

the other tenets of the PRC District could be lost with the conversion of the Reston PRC District to other planned development districts. As a result, Reston could lose its unique zoning designation that has helped to shape the community for the past 50 years.

Of course, there are other risks to rezoning from PRC to something else. The staff time needed to navigate the zoning process can add costs to development that are passed on to future residents. Potential homes could be taken off the blue prints due to the usual fears, couched in terms like "neighborhood character."

The other outcome is that landowners may decide to totally forgo new changes, denying Reston the chance to add homes for people who want a chance to live here and contribute. Groups that are explicit in their desire to cap Reston's population may prefer that option. But it would be a real blow for anyone interested in finding opportunities for affordable housing—like many of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisor's candidates running for election this year.