One City Council member called T-zone updates the "most disappointing outcome," as a divide remains ahead of final City Council action.
FALLS CHURCH, VA — Proposed zoning updates to the City of Falls Church's transition zones, or T zones, will have a final decision later in September. But a Monday City Council discussion showed a divide still remains among City Council members and community members.
The T-zone updates, would apply to a small area of the city between single-family residential zones and commercial zones. Less than 3 percent of the city is within transition zones and includes North Washington Street and Park Avenue with existing uses of Columbia Baptist Church, Christ-Crossman Methodist Church, Sunrise of Falls Church, single-family houses used for business, residential townhouses, Kaiser Permanente facility and a small office building. The T-zone discussion has been a years-long process that started in 2021.
Overall, the zoning updates seek to expand housing for more income levels by eliminating new single-family and two-family homes within transition zones and allow townhouse, apartment and multifamily residential uses. Residential developments would have to have a minimum of 14 units per acre or a maximum of by-right 34 acres per unit without affordable units and 40 units per acre with 10 percent affordable units. The maximum residential density with a special use permit review would be 51 units per acre, depending on the percentage of affordable units.
Another goal of the zoning updates is to provide more neighborhood-serving retail. The proposed zoning updates call for eliminating uses like parking lots and boardinghouses and allow businesses like restaurants, bakeries, salons and barbershops, clothing stores, bookstores, furniture stores and hardware stores.
But details of the zoning updates have caused a divide in the community. Councilmember Dave Snyder has voiced opposition to the transition zone updates during City Council discussions. At Monday's discussion, he noted that former City Council members, former planning commissioners and hundreds of residents have expressed concerns.
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"I don't think this is anywhere near a community consensus," said Snyder at Monday's City Council meeting. "It could be. It's probably in my 24 some years here on the city council, this is the most disappointing outcome that I think I have ever seen. We can get there if we will listen and if we're willing to make reasonable accommodation. So far, that has not been the controlling attitude, and that has caused probably the most significant division of community that I've seen in decades and it's totally unnecessary."
The councilmember pointed to environmental concerns from the proposal's height limits, light coverage, small setbacks and impervious surface. He argued that the opposed residents are not NIMBYs, or "not in my backyard" supporters who oppose new types of development in their neighborhoods.
"The reality is they're not NIMBYs, they're 'do it right in my backyard,'" said Snyder. "At no time have these people said no. At no time have they said we're against everything. What they have said is let's do it right so that the transition zones are treated as transition zones, not as simply an extension of much greater density into and against residential areas."
Snyder said he will be proposing alternatives to height-lot coverage and impervious surface guidelines.
Mayor David Tarter has also expressed concerns and said there should be extra consideration to get the transition zone update right.
"Once you build a building, it's there for the rest of everybody's life, your building is going to be there," said Tarter. "And if it's got fractional ownership with 20 different owners, it's never going to get torn down. So to my mind, as a small community, you got to get it right the first time. We don't have enough area to figure it out, and then come back again and try to refigure it out."
Members of the public have shared mixed opinions about the T-zone updates in comments submitted to the city.
Supporters pointed to benefits like housing diversity.
"I would love to be able to one day own a house in the city, and be able to repeat some of the core memories of my childhood with my kids: ride a bike down the W&OD Trail, watch live music in Cherry Hill Park, and attend the farmers market," said Marek Wojtala, a Richmond resident who grew up in Falls Church and whose parents still live there. "However, I know this is only possible if Falls Church takes a few steps, and these changes to T-zones are just one part of that."
"After graduating from law school, my partner and I are looking for affordable housing in Falls Church to make it our forever home," said Kalena Wojtala, a Falls Church native. "Unfortunately, we have been unable to find affordable housing, and it seems likely that we will have to move to other local towns to meet our needs."
Other commenters have raised concerns about denser development in areas like Park Avenue and parts of Washington Street.
"This would be disastrous for our City, and would completely disseminate the small town feel," wrote Falls Church resident Stacey Nahrwold. "There has already been development to provide for transitional and other low income housing and NOT enough attention to the vacant blights currently on Broad Street."
Falls Church resident Farley Will pointed out that the T-zone proposal could make more sense for the areas closer to the East Falls Church Metro.
"I actually think most of the proposal makes sense for the lots that are close to the Metro on Washington Street," wrote Will in a public comment. "But it makes less sense for the other lots, particularly the contentious ones on Park Ave between Virginia Ave and Oak St. I struggle to believe that people in these areas take public transportation as much since it is a 1-2 mile walk to the Metro."
City Council members who support the T-zone updates addressed up residents' concern of new development in T zones not looking like the Spectrum, a condominium complex between Broad Street and Park Avenue with ground-floor retail.
Councilmember Marybeth Connelly said the guidelines were developed so new development wouldn't look like the tall condominium building.
"What we are allowing to build, what builders will be building will not look like the Spectrum," said Connelly. "And we have carefully and thoughtfully built that into this ordinance."
Vice Mayor Letty Hardi confirmed with city staff that T-zone updates largely apply to residential properties below an acre. That means the proposed density per acre guidelines would be less for properties below an acre. Proposals involving multiple parcels or more than an acre would require rezoning and a special exemption process.
Councilmember Phil Duncan envisions the guidelines will provide a setting where developments like Winter Hill can occur. He used the example of how Winter Hill, formerly Tyler Gardens, was built in the post-World War II era.
"It had to have been extremely radical change of use of land to take what had basically been a small town farming community, almost commuter suburb, I guess, even by then, and put that many housing units into that small space," said Duncan. "I think that what I hope that we can do is produce an outcome similar to that. So we can have housing that is, by modern standards, attainable to starter [homes]."
However, Duncan acknowledged that Falls Church is not known as a place for traditional starter homes. Rather, the city has "advanced starter" homes for residents with significant income to afford the city's costly homes. But Duncan supports making more progress to providing more mixed housing, including progress to include affordable units in new mixed-use developments.
"I'd love to see us attract the developer who would build [3,500] or 4,700-square foot starter homes for a couple with maybe a kid to get them on the first rung of homeownership in this in the city," said Duncan.
City Council voted 4-2 to schedule a public hearing and final consideration, with Snyder and Tarter opposing. The final vote on the T-zone updates is scheduled for Sept. 26.
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