Frankly, we are impressed by the willingness of the new Falls Church City Council to pull back from a bad idea and head back to the drawing board. That’s what it did Monday night, when it decided to pull off the table a component of sweeping residential zoning changes that would have, in the opinion of many, deprived citizens of property rights. It had to do with the disposition of so-called “sub-standard lots.” The Council was ready to severely restrict their potential development, and now, according to Mayor Robin Gardner, that component of the zoning reform package will undergo “substantial changes."
She and others on the Council rightly credited input from citizen homeowners in the City with compelling the Council to rethink this idea and take another two months before making any final decisions. Based on our experience of 15 years of City Council proceedings in Falls Church, we’re not sure how many earlier Councils would have subordinated their egos and macho to such a reasonable approach.
This new Council, with three brand new members and a new mayor, apparently are learning fast that, with all due respect to the considerable talent in the Falls Church Planning Department and elsewhere around City Hall, planners and their ilk are cloistered in their offices surrounded by great tombs called things like Comprehensive Plans and Zoning Codes, and too seldom get out in the real world. They view it as their jobs to operate in a pristine world devoid of public comment, leaving that untidy task to the politicians. They only listen to the City Council’s direction, and often take those cues and run into a quasi-fantasy world where they meddle with ideas and designs that too often fail the test of the real world. That’s why, among other things, allowing for the prospect for reasonable exceptions to the rules in almost everything they craft is probably a very good idea.
There is nothing malicious or incompetent in the behavior of these Keepers of the Great Tomes. They are doing their jobs and they offer useful insight into what those tomes say regarding any particular proposed piece of legislation. Based on their interpretations, they ultimately recommend for or against something. But their recommendations are not based on whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, reasonable or not, but only on whether or not it “fits” with what their good books say.
Therefore, this puts the burden of leadership squarely on the shoulders of the Council, and not the City staff. The Council, if you will, must mediate the “letter of the law,” as explicated by the staff, with the real nitty-gritty world of multiple consequences and potentials. In the case of the sub-standard lots issue, and the lot coverage issue coming up soon, the Council allowed the Planning staff to run amok, and must now use its wisdom, perception and insight to revise the Planning staff’s product with sound doses of reality.