Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts: News of Greater Falls Church

In 1978, about 600,000 people lived in Fairfax County, which still was considered a “bedroom” community to the Nation’s Capital. In 1978, the Board of Supervisors also adopted a “new” Zoning Ordinance (ZO) for Fairfax County. In the intervening years, piecemeal amendments ballooned the Zoning Ordinance to more than 1,200 pages, with numerous redundancies and sections that sometimes disagreed with each other. It was not user-friendly. A new, modern Zoning Ordinance was needed, one that could be adapted to electronic formats, and that was easier to use and understand by the general public, as well as county staff.

Recognizing the unwieldy nature of the nearly 40-year-old ordinance, in the spring of 2017, the Board of Supervisors approved initiation of the first phase known as zMOD, or Zoning Ordinance Modernization. Using consultant services, county staff began addressing the “clunkiness” of the previous ordinance, using more charts, tables, and hyperlinks (the original ordinance had text only, and lots of it), and added flexibility to accommodate the interests of today’s residents. For instance, when a new business using trampolines for fun and exercise wanted to open in a retail shopping center, the Comprehensive Plan did not identify trampoline exercise as a permissible retail use, so the application was denied. Commercial trampoline exercise didn’t even exist when the earlier Zoning Ordinance was adopted, so the Comprehensive Plan first had to be amended to allow such uses, followed by the public process for a Rezoning or Special Exception to approve the use. The entire process, in both time and money, was lengthy and exasperating, and demonstrated why modernization was needed. In our diverse community, uses needed to be combined into more generic terms to accommodate emerging trends, rather than specifying by name of activity.

The zMOD project modernized land uses — electric vehicle charging stations, small makers’ space, and distribution hubs, for example — and their regulations, which were rewritten in plain language, rather than legalese. During 2018 and 2019, the Board of Supervisors endorsed portions of the modernization language and regulations, and released the consolidated Zoning Ordinance in June 2020; additional revisions were released last November. Outreach included more than 100 public meetings, 65 of which were held pre-pandemic. Not surprisingly, participation increased during the later on-line meetings. Websites, videos, surveys, newsletters, and social media were among the many outreach methods used.

Hundreds of uses are included in the new Zoning Ordinance, but three items garnered the most comment at both the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors public hearings — accessory living units (ALUs), home-based businesses (HBB), and flag size. ALU standards had not changed since 1983, when a Special Permit was required, and someone on the property had to be 55-plus in age or disabled. The Board’s approval of zMOD removed the age or disability requirement, but retained the restriction of no more than two people. An administrative permit is required, as is an additional designated parking space. No space, no permit. ALUs are only allowed with single-family detached dwellings.

There are more than 9000 HBBs, including music teachers, dance studios, and tutors, registered in Fairfax County. The existing allowance for up to four students at a time, and eight in a day for teaching activities, was retained, but a Special Permit will be required for other HBB owners wishing to have customers in the home. The Board also lowered the Special Permit application fee and, if the home is served by well or septic, the applicant must obtain Health Department approval prior to issuance of a permit.

The Board quickly disposed of restrictions on flag size — for any flag — but retained the current limit of three flags per lot, whether national, college, political, or seasonal. So-called small “garden flags” are not, and have not been, restricted in number. Flagpole heights above 25 feet may need approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Following four years of work with county staff and the community, zMOD was adopted on March 23 by a vote of seven yeas and three nays. Follow-on motions included a county staff review of the new provisions within 18 months, and establishment of a voluntary process to connect Housing Choice Voucher participants, as well as older adults and persons with disabilities, who might be potential tenants, with ALU homeowners. The newly modernized Zoning Ordinance takes effect on July 1, 2021. Log on to fairfaxcounty.gov and type zMOD into the search box for more information.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov.