Tysons Corner, VA

Neighbors opposed to a controversial for-profit therapy program got a win from a Fairfax County zoning official’s letter.

A piece of the Newport Academy’s plans to open a facility treating teenagers with mental health or addiction problems in a McLean neighborhood hinged on that facility being a by-right use — a use that won’t require approval by the Board of Supervisors. But local officials are now saying that isn’t the case.

Fairfax Counting Zoning Administrator Leslie Johnson said in a letter to local residents that the facility is a congregate living facility, which is not permitted as a by-right use at the location.

According to Johnson’s letter, in August 2018 the Newport Academy sent a letter to the Department of Planning and Zoning stating its intent to open two homes — one at 1624 Davidson Road and one at 1318 Kurtz Road — and asked if it could purchase a neighboring house and operate it as a licensed home.

In response, the zoning staff agreed that the buildings would be considered group residential facilities, which are limited to eight residents. The response did not directly answer whether a neighboring home could be used as a licensed home, and the Newport Academy did not contact Fairfax County after it purchased the properties at 1620 and 1622 Davidson Road.

But Johnson said the Newport Academy’s assertion that the homes were separate operations — crucial for qualifying for the eight resident limit — were contradicted by other applications listing the operations as a single program with residents above the limit for the group residential facility classification.

The appearance of the Newport Academy program being a single facility didn’t stop there. Johnson’s letter to the community notes that in April, county staff learned that a 6-foot fence had been built around the facility, “creating the appearance of a completely enclosed facility.”

Johnson’s letter said the supposedly separate facilities were listed as having shared staff, like a security guard and night staff, in both public meetings and other permit applications.”

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If you’re looking for a place to house your servants, watchman and tenant farmers, there’s good news — Fairfax is in the middle of a process to simplify its complex and humorously outdated zoning code.

At a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Development Process Committee meeting yesterday (May 14), the committee reviewed a series of proposed changes to modernize the zoning code — a process dubbed zMOD.

During the meeting, a consultant working on the modernization said Fairfax County’s zoning wasn’t the most labyrinthine he’d seen, but it was close.

Much of the process involves consolidating a wide array of residential classifications — like dormitories, fraternity/sorority houses, rooming/boarding houses, etc. — into a single use, like “residence hall.” Servants quarters and housing for tenant farmers in Fairfax are now grouped together as “caretaker quarters.”

But the regulations also add new zoning uses to the code as well, like electric vehicle charging or solar collection systems.

At the meeting, staff said part of the new zoning would include extensive modifications to accessory dwelling unit (ADU) zoning. These are dwelling units designed as separate from the primary residence.

Currently, all ADUs require a special use permit, but under the new regulations, an administrative approval could be obtained if the unit is located entirely within the main residence — like a basement separate from the main house.

The zMOD process is scheduled to be presented as a consolidated draft to the Board of Supervisors in July. Work is expected to continue on the zMOD process throughout 2019 with public hearings on the final draft in spring and summer 2020.

Photo via Fairfax County Government

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Tensions reached a boiling point last night (Wednesday) in McLean as local residents threatened to run a therapy center out of town — legally or illegally, in the words of one neighbor.

A series of new group homes by Newport Academy, a corporation that runs therapy programs treating teenagers with mental health or addiction problems, are planned for a residential neighborhood.

Three of the homes — 1620, 1622 and 1624 Davidson Road — are clustered on a private cul-de-sac one block away from McLean High School, while another one is going in at 1318 Kurtz Road.

Representatives from the project, several elected officials and Fairfax County staff started a community meeting in the McLean High School auditorium with presentations about the project, but the more than four-hour-long public hearing after the presentations showed that the project has struck a deep nerve with the local community.

On one side were the Newport Academy staff and a handful of supporters in the audience who said the program is necessary to help deal with the local mental health crisis. Teenagers or adults who said they had struggled with mental health issues described the difficulty of finding treatment facilities in the area. These stories were frequently interrupted by a chorus of booing from the audience — at least once in the middle of a young woman recounting her trauma following a sexual assault.

But opponents of the project — mainly nearby residents or parents with children at McLean High School — comprised the vast majority of the standing-room-only audience in the auditorium.

While they were united in opposition to the project, their reasons varied. Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District) conducted an impromptu poll of the audience, and half said they are opposed to any group home while the other half would be fine with just one, but opposed the cluster.

“It’s three houses side by side; it’s a compound,” Robert Mechlin, a nearby resident, told Tysons Reporter. “If I want to build a shed, I have to get a permit. Why isn’t this the same litmus test?”

Mechlin also echoed concerns about how residents of the facility would affect safety in the nearby neighborhood. In the small town of Bethlehem, Conn., students at the Newport Academy were responsible for at least two criminal incidents — the theft of a car and a student who stole bottles of vodka from a local bar. Throughout the evening, nearby residents said the prospect of the treatment facility next door makes them feel unsafe.

Newport Academy Founder and CEO Jamison Monroe said security tightened after the incidents in Connecticut. A presentation on the project noted that alarms would be attached to every door and window and the students would be closely supervised by staff. Later in the meeting, Monroe offered to pay for a security guard to monitor the site, but by then the public concerns around the project ballooned beyond just security.

The secrecy and allegations of deception surrounding the purchasing of the property were also recurring themes among the opponents. Neighbors said that after the properties were purchased, the real estate agents who orchestrated the deals told neighbors they were subject to non-disclosure agreements.

“I was told multiple times that [the development] was for a wealthy individual,” Steve Wydler, a leasing agent with Wydler Brothers Real Estate in McLean, said. “It was only after construction started that we were told the project was under an NDA.”

Monroe admitted that he didn’t know why the non-disclosure agreements were put into place.

“I’ve learned some things about our real estate agents this evening that I was not aware of previously,” Monroe said.

Marc Lampkin, who became one of the unofficial orchestraters of the opposition from a seat in the front row, said the facility would extract money from the students and leave the neighborhood with problems.

“We all appreciate the notion of treatment, but the single biggest concern is that you failed the good neighbor policy out of the box,” Lampkin said. “You hired a real estate agent who bought the property with lies and misrepresentation. You are a for-profit entity and you’re driving a truck through a loophole [in Fair Housing law].”

As frustrations escalated throughout the evening, Monroe became the main target of the community’s rage, with local residents calling him smug, arrogant and a “son of a bitch” several times.

Caught between the two, the elected officials expressed unhappiness with the project, but said it was being redeveloped by-right and left their hands tied.

Two of the rallying cries from the opposition were “Remember Sunrise” — a reference to a plan by Sunrise Senior Living Facility that the Board of Supervisors denied following widespread public outrage — and a promise to oust elected officials if they didn’t vocally oppose the project.

“I do not support three houses on the same site,” Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said. “But it is the law. In my opinion, one company buying those properties changes the character of the neighborhood. I oppose that. But we do not see a way to stop it.”

The county argued that the project is a group home, which is considered a “by right” development — meaning there’s no requirement of public notice and no zoning approvals needed from the county. Several of the politicians said they first heard of the project when the outrage started.

“I am not at all surprised to see this turnout,” Sullivan said. “Three weeks ago, our emails lit up with questions and comments.”

Complicating the issue, the Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against individuals because of a handicap or disabilities, which the Code of Virginia says includes residential facilities housing individuals with mental illnesses.

But several opponents noted that there are ways around that protection. Some locals questioned whether the project qualified as a group home. Wydler said that the project might not qualify as a residence — a crucial part of the project’s status as a by-right development — given that the average length of stay for students of the program is substantially less than the 183 days that the tax code considers residency.

Fairfax County Attorney Beth Teare said the county was still looking into the zoning regulations and rules surrounding the project. The group’s license application is still pending before the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

If the licenses are granted, Monroe said the facilities could begin operation within a few months. If it does, at least one attendee threatened to file a lawsuit.

Regardless of the outcome, Sullivan said he and other elected officials would look into closing what the public saw as fair housing loopholes.

“One of the things I want to look at moving forward is making sure there is more advanced notice of this sort of thing,” Sullivan said.

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(Updated 4 p.m.) Fairfax County wants to make it easier for locals to garden and for farmers markets to operate.

As the county gets denser, residents are finding new ways to get in touch with their green thumb. A series of zoning changes planned for discussion at tomorrow’s (Wednesday) Planning Commission meeting would loosen restrictions around gardening and farmers markets.

The proposals would create a new “community garden” use in the zoning code. These gardens could be located on either the ground floor or rooftop and could be considered common open space by right, meaning no additional zoning requirements would be required for approval.

According to the staff report on the amendment:

By expanding the definition of open space to include community gardens, homeowners or condominium associations will be able to establish community gardens subject to the proposed use standards… Similarly, the proposed amendment permits non-residential developments, such as places of worship, office, and other commercial and industrial developments, schools, et cetera to establish community gardens by right as accessory uses in open space, subject to the proposed use standards.

Analysis of community gardens by Fairfax County showed that most occupy less than two acres of land, but gardens proposed above two acres could still be approved with a special permit from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

The changes also remove a restriction that only allows gardens on side or rear yards of single-family residential lots. Gardens could be allowed in front yards, provided they are no closer than 15 feet to the front of the lot and limited to 10 feet squared in area.

The zoning changes would also loosen up restrictions on farmers markets. Currently, farmers markets are a temporary special permit with what the report calls “significant restrictions.” They are currently only permitted to sell seasonal or perishable produce between April and November and only on lots that front arterial streets.

But the report recognizes that farmers markets have evolved substantially since those regulations were written and have expanded the to food beyond just produce.

The new regulations would permit farmers markets for two-year periods and allow year-round operation. The markets would also be allowed to operate away from major roads, a rule that the staff report said half of the existing markets ignore anyway.

The only restriction on merchandise at farmers markets would be that items for sale must be farm products or products derived from a farm, like salsa using ingredients from a farm.

The changes are planned to go to the Board of Supervisors on June 25, and if approved, could take effect by 12:01 a.m. the day after adoption.

“Staff believes that this amendment provides a balanced approach to providing easier access to fresh, healthy food to residents in all areas of the County,” staff said in the report, “while ensuring that the uses of community gardens, farmers markets, and residential gardening are established to be good neighbors.”

Photo via Facebook

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After a moratorium on new applications and a long series of discussions, the Town of Vienna is ready for the public debut of the new Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning changes at two workshops next week.

The community workshops will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, March 29, and from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturday, March 30 at the Vienna Community Center (120 Cherry Street SE).

The workshops will demonstrate how the community feedback has been translated into changes in the design guidelines, according to the Town of Vienna newsletter.

Some of the first changes proposed addressed the scaling of buildings, one of the biggest topics of controversy in last year’s MAC debates. Further changes have been added over the last month of workshops between the Town Council, Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review.

The workshops are scheduled to be “open house” style, meaning residents can drop in and leave at any point. No formal presentations are planned.

Image via Town of Vienna

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Monday Morning Notes

McLean Runner Places Third at Marathon — McLean native Anna Buser placed third among female competitors at the Rock n Roll D.C. marathon over the weekend, with a time of 3:15:43. [Getty Images, WTOP]

Temporary Amenities Help Improve Tysons — “Temporary urbanism, like holiday markets, beer gardens, and Park(ing) Day parklets, are an increasingly important part of our cities. But in many places, including Tysons, zoning regulations make them difficult to build.” [Greater Greater Washington]

Local Neighborhoods Among NoVa’s Hottest — The “hottest up-and-coming neighborhoods in Northern Virginia” include the Mosaic District, Pimmit Hills and Tysons, according to Northern Virginia Magazine. [Northern Virginia]

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The Vienna Town Council will review two projects along Maple Avenue in a work session tonight (Monday), after indicating concerns that developers are trying to skirt zoning regulations by pushing their proposed heights a bit higher than current limits might allow.

The 380 Maple development is a proposed mixed-use building with 7,500 square feet of ground floor retail and 40 residential condominiums on three floors. The building includes one floor of underground parking and two floors of structure above-ground parking, but staff noted that the applications calls for an extra half-floor added to the mix, beyond current limits in the area.

“Staff notes that the applicant is proposing a half-floor of parking between the first story and second story of the building, beyond the four stories allowed per code,” staff said in a project overview. “The applicant is applying for a modification of requirement for the additional half-story.”

While approving of greater levels of parking available at the site, Councilmember Douglas Noble said at a meeting last week that he was concerned the additional half-story would still be contrary to the Maple Avenue zoning code’s five-story limit.

Meanwhile, the Sunrise Assisted Living project, a four-story building with 85 assisted living units and 7,700 square feet of first-floor commercial space, is also requesting a “half-story” space.

“Staff notes that the applicant is proposing a half-story space to include additional lobby and common spaces for the assisted living facility between the first story and second story of the building, beyond the four stories allowed per Code,” staff said in the project overview. “The applicant is applying for a modification of requirement for the additional half-story.”

An additional item listed as “limiting discussion with developers” was also added to the agenda at the request of Councilmembers Pasha Majdi and Howard Springsteen, two of the leading opponents to the controversial Maple Avenue Commercial developments last year.

Image via Town of Vienna Planning and Zoning

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Two developments planned for Maple Avenue are facing some backlash from the Vienna Town Council for trying to slip an extra floor or two into their projects.

At last night’s (Monday) Vienna Town Council meeting, Councilmember Douglas Noble said he had concerns about the mixed-use development at 380 Maple Street and the 80-unit Sunrise Assisted Living facility proposed at the corner of Maple Avenue and Center Street.

For 380 Maple Street, Noble said he was happy to see new parking recently added to the project but was concerned that the building’s height exceeds four-story limits established in the zoning code.

“The applicant has come in with a proposal that has an extra floor… for parking,” said Noble. “It’s a creative solution to add parking. [They] also asked for a site plan modification to add a half-story. I have strong concerns that this is contrary to the intent of Maple Avenue [zoning]. It’s five stories.”

Meanwhile, Noble also said the Sunrise Assisted Living Facility had recently proposed a mezzanine that doesn’t actually fit the town’s definition of one.

“My reading of MAC code and my understanding of how we wrote it was that a mezzanine does not occupy more than 50 percent of the area of the floor below. In our current definition, it says it’s partially open to that floor below. I do not believe plans at Sunrise meet either criterion. I have concerns that these plans are not compliant.”

Town staff said both projects will be discussed in a work session with the Town Council next Monday (March 4).

Photo via Town of Vienna Planning and Zoning

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Criticism over massing and scale of new buildings has prompted the Town of Vienna to revisit its Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning requirements.

While the four-story height limit remains intact, new regulations will push buildings further away from the street.

Setbacks — or the required distance of a new development from the street — played a major role in discussions last year regarding the redevelopment of the Vienna Wolf Trap Hotel. Critics and a few members of the Town Council argued the size of the building overshadowed nearby developments and asked that the building be reduced in size and built further away from Maple Avenue.

The minimum distance from the front of the building to the curb was 20 feet on Maple Avenue, but the new amendments increase that set back to 28 feet. On side streets, the setback requirement is increased from 15 feet to 20 feet.

A maximum height of four stories or 54 feet was included in the original zoning regulations, but the new regulations include a note that all buildings “shall have the appearance of, at most, four stories when viewed from every cardinal direction.”

New proposals will also require applicants to include an analysis of the long-term fiscal benefits and costs to Vienna under the revisions the commission will examine. Projects will also be required to include how the development fits into the current school zone boundary map.

As part of an effort to ensure that the new developments boost local retail, the regulations include a requirement that new developments or redevelopments include ground floor commercial square footage equal to or greater than what currently exists, including commercial square footage currently occupied, vacant or previously demolished.

Density caps had been discussed for multi-family dwelling units, but a comment on the proposed amendments notes that the idea was eventually dismissed.

The new regulations also slightly increase the amount of transparency on the ground floor facade from 50 percent to 60 percent.

The building also includes extensive revisions impervious surfaces of new developments. MAC-zoned developments have an 80 percent maximum impervious surface, meaning surfaces that rainwater can’t pass through. The idea is to prevent runoff that can quickly flood Maple Avenue.

But the zoning regulations also offer incentives allowing an increase in the impervious surface if other requirements are met. This includes a 5 or 10 percent increase if the applicant constructs and maintains a vegetated roof system covering at least half, or 2,000 square feet, of continuous roof area.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to discuss the changes at a work session tomorrow (Wednesday) at 6:30 p.m.

A joint work session is scheduled for March 6, followed by community workshops later in March to discuss the proposed changes.

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Morning Notes

Local Startup Raises $30 Million — “Fairfax-based real estate data and analytics company Remine,” which has offices in Tysons and Dunn Loring, “has closed a $30 million Series A funding round, bringing its total amount raised to $48 million.” [Washington Business Journal]

Officials Hold Meeting on E-Bikes — “The recent popularity [of] e-bikes and the fact they are not allowed on trails in Fairfax County and NOVA Parks prompted NOVA Parks and Fairfax County Park Authority to take steps to understand the issues and then share facts with the public and listen to their comments.” [McLean Connection]

Fairfax Home Market Flat to Start Year — “A modest increase in sales was offset by slightly lower average sales price in the January home-sales report for Fairfax County. And as a result, the total sales volume for the month stood relatively unchanged as the local market began to segue from winter to spring.” [InsideNova]

Falls Church Seeking BZA Member — The Falls Church Board of Zoning Appeals is looking to fill a vacancy for the position of Alternate Member. [City of Falls Church]

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