Tysons, VA

How often should a homeowner have to reassure the county that their granny flat is a granny flat?

That is one of many questions facing Fairfax County as it continues working toward the first major overhaul of its zoning ordinance in 40 years.

Providence District Planning Commissioner Phil Niedzielski-Eichner attempted to answer some of those questions in a discussion with the Providence District Council on Oct. 14 that also touched on development and housing.

The importance of the Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance Modernization Project, or zMOD, has become increasingly apparent as housing affordability challenges persist and more people work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Niedzielski-Eichner says.

“We want, on the one hand, to increase the opportunity for people to afford to live in the community,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “We want to allow for the potential of people working out of their homes. We want to recognize that that’s an evolving reality. At the same time, we’re sensitive to protecting the neighborhood and don’t want it to cause parking problems and other neighborhood issues.”

Among the biggest proposed changes to the Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance are new regulations for accessory living units, which generally known as accessory dwelling units but got a name change in Fairfax to avoid confusion with affordable dwelling units.

Defined as “subordinate living spaces with areas for eating, sleeping, living, and sanitation,” ALUs are currently only allowed in Fairfax County if an occupant of the unit or the principal dwelling is 55-plus years old or has a disability.

Under Fairfax County’s most recent draft zoning ordinance, which has been available for public comment since June 30, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors would have the option of eliminating the age and disability requirements for an accessory living unit.

The draft ordinance also outlines a new process for homeowners to get approval for an ALU.

Currently, homeowners currently have to attend a public hearing if they want to add an ALU, but the proposed zoning ordinance allows property owners to instead apply for an administrative or special permit that would need to be renewed every five years.

Niedzielski-Eichner says county staff is considering requiring renewal every two years instead of five, as they try to acknowledge concerns about the potential impact of accessory living units on neighborhoods without overly burdening property owners.

“We already know that people are doing accessory living units outside of the context of permitting or any regulation,” the Providence District planning commissioner said. “If we make it so difficult that people don’t want to enter into the process, then we lose the ability to influence the quality of that process and how it’s implemented.”

The Fairfax County Planning Commission’s land use process review committee is scheduled to have a discussion on zMOD this Thursday (Oct. 22) at 7:30 p.m.

Other land use and zoning challenges facing Fairfax County, especially a district like Providence that spans urbanizing centers like Tysons and older neighborhoods like Mantua, include expanding the availability of affordable and workforce housing, and ensuring that county services and infrastructure keep pace with development.

Niedzielski-Eichner says he has advocated for the county to become more data-driven when making decisions, such as altering policies around ALUs, that could potentially change the character of a neighborhood.

“It’s all about community confidence,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “I feel that we have to do those things so that the community will come along with the policy and have confidence that it follows their best interests.”

Image via Providence District Council

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Fairfax County is in the process of overhauling the outdated sections of its zoning ordinance, and Supervisor Dalia Palchik will be on hand tonight to address any questions locals might have about some of the upcoming zoning changes.

The Zoom meeting is scheduled tonight (Wednesday) at 7 p.m. and is open to all residents of the Providence District.

“Join the Providence District Council in attending this virtual community outreach meeting hosted by District Supervisor Dalia Palchik to learn from Planning and Development staff, ask questions and provide feedback on the zMOD Consolidated Draft,” the Providence District Council said in an email.

A 711 page draft document contains all of the planned changes. Many are modernizations that bring Fairfax’s zoning language in line with state and federal regulations to reduce confusion, such as renaming “home childcare facility” to “home daycare facility” and adding new classifications of residential uses, like accessory living units.

Questions can be submitted in advance via email to [email protected]

Image via Fairfax County

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Restaurants and businesses in the Town of Vienna can take advantage of outside spaces for the next seven months.

Last night, the Vienna Town Council voted to extend a temporary waiver on commercial activity outside in hopes of helping local businesses stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.

Businesses are utilizing parking lots and sidewalks in hopes of attracting more customers as they operate under state and local rules capacity restrictions and social distancing guidelines. As the pandemic continues, customers are gauging how safe they feel inside or outside — with some people opting to limit their time inside businesses.

“We have got to do this to keep our businesses going,” Councilmember Howard Springsteen said.

The Vienna Town Council first approved the emergency ordinance on June 1 and then readopted it on June 15. Before the town officials voted last night, the temporary waiver was set to last until Sept. 30.

Now, town businesses will have until March 31, 2021 to apply for and use temporary emergency outdoor commercial activity permits, which Town Manager Mercury Payton authorizes. Payton can also waive regulations for signage and conditional use permits for outdoor dining activities.

After Councilmember Nisha Patel pushed the town to consider a similar waiver for non-commercial zones, Colbert suggested calling for an emergency session on Friday for the Vienna Town Council to consider the proposal.

Patel said that she knows of private schools that would like to use outdoor space for teaching. “If you can get the kids out of the classroom and out into the open air, I think is safer in general,” Patel said.

Photo via Vienna Business Association/Facebook

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The coronavirus pandemic is posing new challenges to a McLean restaurant’s years-long efforts to add two more parking spaces to meet Fairfax County regulations.

Before the pandemic, Sweet Leaf Cafe and its landlord, Juliano Properties, were working to submit the required parking information to county staff earlier this year, Juliano’s attorney told the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals today.

Sweet Leaf (1359 Old Chain Bridge Road) temporarily closed after Gov. Ralph Northam ordered restaurants to close their seating and issued a stay-at-home order in March, and now the restaurant and landlord face financial challenges, the attorney said.

The Board of Zoning Appeals again delayed the restaurant’s and landlord’s appeals of the zoning violation after county staff said that the pandemic is putting a financial strain on the restaurant.

Most of the discussion today about the appeal rehashed the nearly five-year-long effort to resolve the restaurant’s zoning violations.

In late 2015, the restaurant got hit with zoning violations following a complaint about a lack of parking. A zoning ordinance update a few years ago addressed one of the violations, but still leaves the restaurant non-compliant with the parking requirement, which is based on the building’s square footage. Currently, the restaurant has 12 of the 14 required parking spaces.

Sweet Leaf’s Co-Founder Andre Matini told the zoning board in March that finding the additional two parking spaces has been challenging.

Now, the new financial hurdles are also impacting the situation.

“We have not been able to front that cost,” the attorney said today about the engineering firm Juliano hired to assess the parking situation. “We need time for the resources to be mustered.”

St. Clair Williams, a county staffer, said that once the engineering firm submits information, the rest of the process should be “fairly smooth.”

The zoning board, Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust and county staff have said they don’t want to force the restaurant to close. At the same time, county officials have expressed frustration this year about how long the compliance process is taking.

“I think 15 [delays] in four years on one case — something isn’t working,” James Hart, a zoning board member, said today.

The zoning board unanimously voted to delay consideration of the appeals to Nov. 4.

While Sweet Leaf did not have a representative at the meeting today, the landlord’s attorney and Williams assured the zoning board that the restaurant will be OK with the delay to November.

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After delays due to the pandemic, the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals approved changes that will allow a McLean church to expand its child care offerings.

The St. Thomas Episcopal Church (8991 Brook Road) wants to add a child care center that will be open from 6 a.m.-6 p.m. on weekdays along with the current nursery school. The church would like to have up to 99 kids on-site at any one time.

“What we’re trying to do is modify the conditions to bring a nursery school that was approved almost 25 years ago to modern standards and to meet the expectations of what families are looking for in 2020 for child care,” a representative for the church said.

Currently, the zoning ordinance limits the church to having its nursery school divided into morning and afternoon sessions with 50 kids max per session and hours from 8 a.m.-3 pm.

The church representative said that there is barely any need for a mid-day drop-off, saying that parents need all-day daycare.

More from the staff report:

The proposed child care center will operate within the same building as the existing nursery school, and no exterior renovations are proposed as part of this application… In a nursery school, children aged 2-5 years old are limited to four hours of care per day, while children 5+ years old are limited to six and one-half hours of care per day. In a child care center, there are no time limits on the number of hours of care per day.

The nursery school/child care center will continue to have a maximum enrollment of up to 99 students at any one time. The children will be aged from 2 years through 5 years…  The applicant indicates that the nursery school/child care center facility will serve both parishioners and residents of the surrounding community. The facility will have 10-15 staff members…

Staff with the Fairfax County Department of Transportation (FCDOT) raised concerns with the impact that additional vehicles would have on the afternoon peak hours of operation at the intersection of Lewinsville Road / Brook Road / Leesburg Pike…

Staff with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) estimates the intersection improvements will be completed by the end of 2022, with the construction of sound walls, streetscape, and lighting continuing to 2024… [The] applicant has agreed to, a development condition restricting the number of students to 50, for either three (3) years or until the intersection reconfiguration is complete — whichever occurs first.

The BZA was originally going to consider the changes in May, but the application was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the agenda.

The church has undergone three expansions, according to county documents. If the church proceeds with a fourth construction phase, the church would be able to offer up to 325 seats in the main area of worship and the parking spaces would increase from 70 to 90, county staff said.

“The final Phase 4, which includes a significant expansion of the main sanctuary, has not yet occurred. The Church has indicated that while they have no immediate plans to construct Phase 4, they wish to maintain their right to do so in the future and propose no changes to the previously approved layout as part of this amendment,” according to county documents.

The church currently has a fenced, 25,000-square-foot playground.

On Wednesday, the zoning board approved the proposed changes to allow for the child care center.

Image via Google Maps

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The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is looking to alter its rules for adult day care centers after providers complained about previous zoning changes.

The board will vote on Tuesday to authorize public hearings — one for the Planning Commission on Sept. 16 and one with the county board on Oct. 6.

The newly proposed changes would make adult day care centers a by-right use in industrial areas and allow the Health Care Advisory Board to review proposed centers. The county also wants to reevaluate the requirement for outdoor recreation space at the centers.

Back in 2018, county officials greenlighted zoning changes that adult day care center providers now say have made it difficult to find appropriate locations in the county, according to county documents.

More from the county documents:

Of particular concern is the requirement for special exception approval in the industrial districts and the requirement to provide outdoor recreation space. This use, similar to child care centers, private schools and places of worship, was previously allowed by-right when located in an office or industrial park and where vehicle access is provided via the internal circulation system of the park. Adult day care providers indicated that the special exception requirement puts them at a disadvantage when trying to lease space, particularly industrial flex space, as other uses with similar land use impacts are allowed by-right, like child care centers, private schools, and places of worship.

The new proposal under consideration stemmed from county officials earlier this year asking staff to review the regulations.

The hearings will seek feedback from community members on the proposed amendments.

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After years of pausing the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zone in attempts to revamp it, the Vienna Town Council decided last night to repeal the zoning code and “start fresh.”

The Vienna Town Council held a public hearing last night on the two options for the MAC’s future: either repealing it or extending the moratorium, which has been in place since 2018, on the zoning code to June 2022.

To Repeal or Not to Repeal?

The two choices received a mixed reaction during the public hearing. Supporters for extending the MAC generally side that the zoning code has many good aspects that they don’t want to see completely scrapped, while supporters for repealing argued that town staff and consultants the town wants to hire need a clean slate.

Mary McCullough, who recently left the town’s Planning Commission, urged the Town Council to keep suspending the MAC until the code rewrite is done. “Repeal says we harmed,” she said. “That’s the message you send with repeal.”

Vienna resident Roy Baldwin said that repealing the MAC sends the message that the work from volunteers on the zoning code “is of no value.” Resident Ray Brill Jr. disagreed, saying that people’s hard work on the MAC is not enough of a reason to keep it.

“The fact that we repeal does not mean we don’t incorporate the vision and some of the things we like,” Brill added.

Cindy Petkac with the town’s planning and zoning division told the Town Council said she thought they would be “better off starting fresh.”

“I think it would be more efficient to repeal it,” Petkac said. “It is a cumbersome, confusing process in my professional opinion.”

Consultant Challenges 

The town’s plans to hire a consulting firm to help with rewriting the code also factored into the conversation last night about what to do with the MAC.

The Vienna Town Council initially paused its plans to hire a firm for $250,000 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baldwin, the local resident, testified that he isn’t convinced the town needs to spend money on consultants when locals with expertise “will work for free.”

Council Douglas Noble argued that bringing in a consultant is even more important now to help the town heal from the pandemic. The Town Council will consider hiring the consulting firm on June 15, Mayor Laurie DiRocco said.

Close Vote

After the public hearing and some discussion among the councilmembers about the MAC, Noble proposed a motion to repeal it.

“It’s not about the MAC,” Noble said. “It’s about how do we make Make Avenue commercially economically viable?”

To quell some concerns about ditching the good parts of the MAC, Councilmember and Mayor-elect Linda Colbert offered an amendment that would make reports, studies, surveys, comments from the Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review and more a part of the package of information the consultants would review.

A lively discussion continued on the idea to repeal, and Noble suggested withdrawing his motion, saying that he thought the councilmembers wanted to talk more.

Ultimately, the council approved Colbert’s amendment and then voted for Noble’s motion 4-3, with Noble, DiRocco and Councilmember Nisha Patel voting “no.”

“We learned over time the MAC code had flaws,” Noble told Tysons Reporter today. “I did not believe those flaws were fixable.”

Image via Town of Vienna

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The Vienna Town Council is pausing its plans to speed up the Maple Avenue Commercial zone update due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December, Councilmember Steve Potter proposed that the town use a consulting firm, calling the work on the zoning ordinance a “log jam.”

Last night, the councilmembers were originally set to consider a contract award for consulting fees, but Town Manager Mercury Payton said that the coronavirus pandemic is delaying plans to hire the consultant.

Councilmember Pasha Majdi praised the delay in a statement, saying that using nearly $250,000 from allocated funds and prior reserves in the town’s budget should be put on hold for the moment.

“For months I’ve been calling for prudent budgeting and spending, which requires delaying nonessential spending at least until revenues stabilize,” Majdi said. “We need to refrain from nonessential spending during the pandemic.”

As the town grapples with the pandemic, the Vienna Town Council is also looking to extend the moratorium on the zoning ordinance from June 30 of this year to June 30, 2022.

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The Vienna Town Council is looking to delay the soon-approaching deadline to revise the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zone.

The moratorium was first put in place in the fall of 2018 so that town staff could redesign the town’s guidelines. Since then, it has been extended several times, drawing criticism from some residents and town officials.

Back in November, Vienna officials voted to push the moratorium to June 30.

But now as the town faces challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty about whether its election that is less than two weeks away will get delayed, town officials want to extend the moratorium again.

At the meeting on Monday (April 27), the council will consider pushing the moratorium until June 30, 2022.

If the council OKs a public hearing on the proposal, the matter will also go before the Planning Commission. The public hearing would be held June 1.

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It’s been almost five years, and Sweet Leaf in McLean is still working to resolve a zoning violation caused by too few parking spots.

The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals decided today (Wednesday) to defer Sweet Leaf’s appeal of its zoning violation for at least the 14th time.

“It’s been a long time, but we’ve been working through this process,” Sweet Leaf co-founder Andre Matini told the board today.

The restaurant has been operating in violation of the zoning code since late 2015, county staff said today.

Over the last few years, zoning changes have affected the cafe, which was originally slapped with zoning violations in 2015 following a complaint about a lack of parking.

One of the zoning violations is now “moot” after the Board of Supervisors adopted changes to the zoning ordinance in 2018, staff said.

When those changes were made, however, the cafe’s other zoning violation became more challenging to fix.

The cafe was incorrectly issued a non-residential use permit (non-RUP) for retail sales but not for food, staff said.

In order to qualify for the correct permit now, the cafe needs to have at least 14 parking spaces with an approved parking reduction — but it only has 12.

Getting the two extra spaces has been more challenging than expected, Matini said.

The county rejected a nearby church’s offer for diners to use its parking lot, Matini said. Now, another neighbor will let the cafe rent two spaces, he said, adding that county staff has been asking for more information.

If the parking reduction fails, then the cafe would need to decrease the square footage of the building.

One of the new changes to the zoning ordinance altered how the number of parking spaces is determined. The building’s square footage — instead of the number of tables at the food establishment — is now used to calculate the parking requirement.

So far, Land Development Services thought the information submitted for the parking reduction request has been “insufficient,” according to the staff report.

Fairfax County Zoning Administrator Leslie Johnson urged that the board make a “short deferral” to push the appellant to get all of the required information to county staff, who said there hasn’t been any recent progress on the parking reduction application.

“We’re not 100% sure how we would resolve the issue if everything is denied by the zoning office,” Matini said. “Obviously, we don’t want to shut down after all of these years in operation.”

The zoning board, staff and Johnson said they want to avoid a situation where the cafe would be forced to close. Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust has also said that he wants the restaurant to stay open.

To give the cafe and the county staff more time to get all of the required materials for the parking reduction application, the Board of Zoning Appeals decided to defer the case to July 22.

“It sounds like people are working hard to resolve this, but they quite aren’t to the finish line yet,” Chairman John Ribble III said.

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