Fox, meet hen house, 9/22/2018

Posted on September 22, 2018

Ever since I first started looking into MAC zoning, I was struck by the absolute and total disconnect between what the citizens of Vienna asked for in the Maple Avenue Vision, and what MAC zoning actually does.  I have rung the changes on that theme many times on this website.

So, somehow, something happened between the completion of the Maple Avenue Vision, and the writing of the MAC code itself.  I have just never understood what that was.

Until yesterday, that is, when an acquaintance showed me an annotated list of the MAC steering committee.  I’m not going to replicate that list here until I can verify it.  But let me just give you the gist of it.

 The MAC steering committee included:

  • People who owned land on Maple Avenue.
  • At least one person working for a lender with financial interest in Maple Avenue property.
  • At least one real estate agent.
  • Town government insiders (e.g., board members) who did not live near Maple.
  • People that I have not yet been able to categorize.

Just contemplate that first bullet for a moment.  People who owned property on Maple were invited to help steer the development of regulations that directly affected the value of property on Maple. 

And voila, the whole thing now makes sense.  That’s what happened between the Maple Avenue Vision and MAC zoning.  That’s why MAC zoning appears so developer-friendly.  That’s why MAC zoning has clauses that appear to be in the interest of the citizens, but actually do nothing.  That’s why features get to be double-counted in the “incentives” portions of the law.  That’s why there’s no affordable housing component.  That’s why the buildings allowable under MAC are far too large for anyone to characterize them as “small town” structures.

And that’s why the law appears to have been written to maximize tax receipts from the new structures.  It wasn’t.  It was written to maximize the value of the MAC buildings.  Which, only incidentally, maximizes the Town’s tax receipts.

So let me now write the brief history of MAC in a way that makes sense.

The Town solicited citizen input in developing the Maple Avenue Vision.  I can no longer find that Maple Avenue Vision document on the Town website, so I hope somebody I know has a copy of it.  But it was very much a call to maintain small town Vienna, along with adding affordable housing and a mix of housing options.  It was a very “nice” view of the future of Vienna.  It was very much focused on keeping Vienna small.

Circa 2010, Town Council made up its mind that it wanted large buildings.   That appears to be when the height limit was decided upon.  No one has been able to question the height limit since.  And that’s when the town had various views of large, lot-covering buildings drawn up, e.g.,

In 2012, the steering committee was formed.  The Town describes this as representing a variety of interests.  Which is true.  But, as noted above, they did in fact include Maple Avenue land owners in the steering committee for a law that directly affected the value of their property.

And this steering committee — what I would term a committee of vested interests and professional interests — developed the MAC zoning that we now have.  I assume that the Town Council that wanted big buildings would have picked a steering committee to ensure that’s what they got.

And, one way or another, the nice sentiments of the Maple Avenue Vision where thrown away.   And we got the law that the Town Council wanted.  One that promotes the construction of large, lot-filling buildings.  One that requires nothing but upscale-retail space on the first floor.   And so on.

So when the Mayor talks about all the citizen input to MAC, that’s absolutely true.  But the key step that gets omitted is ”  … and then they threw that away and had landowners and related professionals draft the law that the Town Council wanted.”  And that’s how we got from that lovely Maple Avenue Vision of preserving “small town” Vienna, affordable housing, and so on, to $1.3M luxury condos (Marco Polo/Vienna Market) and a proposed building larger than a football field, 61′ tall (Tequila Grande/444 Maple West).