In an ongoing effort to reevaluate and improve the way Fairfax County makes decisions about land use, county staff has proposed two new recommendations that overhaul how planning studies are conducted, and creates a schedule for which areas of the county should be studied in the near future.
The Comprehensive Plan, mandated for review every five years by the Virginia Code, is a set of guidelines for how much development is allowed in various regions of the county, and how they will be developed.
“Fairfax Forward is an effort to find a new means to review the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which we have simplified into the two parts, although there are many more recommendations than two,” Meghan Van Dam, a senior planner at the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning, wrote in an email.
Since the late 1970s, the comprehensive plan has been updated using a system called the “area plan review.” Under this process, during a period of time set by the Fairfax County Planning Commission, amendments to current land use guidelines were accepted and reviewed by county staff, brought forward for public comment, and voted on by the Planning Commission then the Board of Supervisors.
“Public comment has generally supported the effort and the need to replace [Area Plan Review],” Van Dam said. “The review of Area Plans has always been a balancing act between the need for review, whether originating from community groups, individual property owners, and staff; Board needs; county resources; and time.”
“We began the project in early 2010, with an Area Plans Review Retrospective to evaluate the APR process to determine what worked well and what needed improvement,” Van Dam said. “At the conclusion of the retrospective (around the end of 2010), we recognized that a more substantial change to the review process was needed and spoke with the PC about extending the timeline for another year, which they supported, and the effort became Fairfax Forward.”
In mid-December, planning staff proposed two recommendations that would change the process for changing the Comprehensive Plan.
The first is to create a work program schedule, where the county would review all aspects of the comprehensive plan, including how they define the characteristics of communities, environmental regulations, and land use and transportation policies. County staff has agreed to work with a set of guidelines for determining which areas and subjects would be studied when and to what depth.
“Comprehensive Plan review will by organized around a Comprehensive Plan amendment work program, which will list studies to occur over the next three years,” Van Dam said. “The remaining portions of the Plan will be reviewed at some point after that, which we have estimated on a longer-term schedule.”
During these area reviews, the county hopes to advance major policy objectives, such as “promoting environmental protection, fostering revitalization of designated areas, supporting economic development, preserving open space, providing affordable housing, or balancing transportation infrastructure and public facilities services with growth and development.”
“By using this approach,” read the Fairfax Forward website, “Plan review could occur according to a schedule that would ensure guidance is up-to-date and relevant based on current and future needs. Study timing will be influenced by the availability of staff and community resources.”
The county recommendation splits up the review process into three categories: Countywide policies, activity centers, and neighborhood planning.
Countywide policy plans that are slated for review first include defining “suburban centers,” community improvement areas, public schools, and building height limits.
In activity areas, county staff recommends areas such as Fairfax Center Area, the Dulles, and Tysons to be reviewed. Over the next two years, staff recommends that Lincolnia and Pohick areas be reviewed, with many more to come in years following.
Apart from the comprehensive plan review schedule, staff also proposed a separate recommendation on how to improve the planning studies that are being proposed over the next several years.
“The second recommendation speaks to how individual studies on the work program will be reviewed,” said Van Dam.
The changes hope to improve “the focus of the scope of the study and public participation,” read a summary from the Fairfax Forward website.
“Once an individual study has been authorized for review on the work program,” read the website, “action would be taken to finalize the scope through a public input process and develop the remaining steps and timeline for review (including public engagement), recommendation, and action.”
“Engaging the public throughout the process would increase awareness of the study, provide an educational component, verify that the scope of work includes community issues, and allow for public input on decisions,” read the website. “Suggestions, such as density or intensity changes, made during the public input process on the scope of work should be included within the study, if they meet the work program criteria.”
“The Planning Commission public hearing is scheduled for March 6th and the Board of Supervisors hearing on March 19th, where there will be an opportunity for further public comment,” said Van Dam. “The Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the Board, who will act upon the recommendations.”
The county will take public comment up through Jan. 18.