Post #368: Revising the commercial zoning regulations

At the 8/19/2019 Vienna Town Council meeting, there was a seemingly innocuous item listed on the agenda as “Directive to Town staff to research amending requirements related to commercial parking, parking lot landscaping, and streetscape.”

If you walk through the meeting materials for this item — which you can, as of this writing, access at this URL  — it still looks fairly cut-and-dried.  At issue were a handful of items such as the amount of parking required for commercial buildings, the nature and type of any required landscaping for parking lots, and the MAC “streetscape” requirements including broad brick sidewalks.

Although the language of the motion was not provided in advance, once you got to hear it, it still seemed fairly — eh — boring, for want of a better word.  Cut-and-dried.   Here’s Councilman Majdi’s motion, which I am pretty sure I transcribed word-for-word, from the tape:

“I move to direct town staff to draft amendments to the MAC as its top priority, and simultaneously to consider amendments to the regular commercial code: C1, C1A, C1B, and C2, in Chapter 18 of Town Code that affect the MAC.  I further move to direct staff to draft amendments to the regular commercial code that require the MAC streetscape, require landscaping for parking lots, and direct staff to consider changes to parking requirements or other incentives to encourage economic growth on Maple avenue, when drafting these amendments.”

In the end, that passed 4-3, with (what I characterize as) the remaining pro-MAC Town Council members (DiRocco, Noble, Colbert) voting against.

And yet, while I’m not seeing some fantastic controversy there, discussion lasted for an hour and a quarter.  I really don’t understand what went on.  There was an hour of discussion before they even heard the language of the motion.  At that point, the Mayor invited an audience member to get up and speak.  (This was not a public hearing, so how that was legal, I have no clue.)  Then immediately after that, they voted.

It just struck me as a strange session all around.   Like more was being not said than said.  So I’m just going to flag this one, putting a marker down in case, at some point, it becomes clear what happened.

At the end of this, I’ll give my best guess as to what is going on.  Let me emphasize that the final section here is pure guesswork.  Best guess, this was an attempt to focus the scope of (at least the initial) rewrite of the Town’s zoning ordinance to a handful of items that might be viewed as critical to Maple Avenue development.  And, as importantly, not to give Town Staff license to rewrite every aspect of the zoning ordinance. 

Video of this section of the meeting.

 

I have posted a (lower-res) copy of the Town’s video, for this section of the meeting, on Youtube.  You may access it directly below.  Times in the discussion refer to that video clip.

 


The final 10 minutes

I’m going to do this one back to front. Basically, I only review the last 10 minutes in detail, because that’s the only part I understand.

At around 1:04 into that session, Councilman Majdi made a carefully-worded motion.  Majdi pointed out that no draft language of the motion was provided, by staff, to the Town Council.  Accordingly, he read through the text of his motion quite slowly.  I have transcribed it below.  I think I got it word-for-word:

“I move to direct town staff to draft amendments to the MAC as its top priority, and simultaneously to consider amendments to the regular commercial code: C1, C1A, C1B, and C2, in Chapter 18 of Town Code that affect the MAC.  I further move to direct staff to draft amendments to the regular commercial code that require the MAC streetscape, require landscaping for parking lots, and direct staff to consider changes to parking requirements or other incentives to encourage economic growth on Maple avenue, when drafting these amendments.”

In a supremely weird turn, At 1:10 into that section of meeting — after this motion was made, but before the vote was taken — the Mayor let a citizen get up and talk for more than four minutes.  This was not a public hearing Citizens were not supposed to have an opportunity to speak.  The opportunity for citizens to speak was not advertised in advance for this meeting.  If this were a public hearing, a citizen would have just three minutes to talk, and would have to begin by stating their name and address.  To me this one was yet another off-the-wall example of the Town just kind of making-it-up-as-it-goes-along.  You’d think that this was either a public hearing or it wasn’t, but in fact, it became a public hearing, for one citizen, at the Mayor’s convenience.

The only clue I have about the mystery guest’s identity is that the Mayor knew him and appeared to address him as Mr. DiFiore?  (Beats me.  He was not required to state name and address.  On the tape, when the Mayor invited him to speak, it sounds like she called him Mr. Dee-Fury, for which the only common name that came to my mind was “DiFiori”, a name of Italian ancestry.)

At 1:14:30 into that section, Councilman Majdi made it clear that his intent was to narrow the scope of what the Town Council might focus on.  His examples were that he had no particular interest in subdivisions, or in the industrial zones in the Town of Vienna.  So that suggests that the main point of this was to focus Town Staff on key issues, as Majdi sees it, for moving ahead on Maple Avenue, and not on a general rewrite of every aspect of Town of Vienna Zoning.

At 1:15:10 into that section, the motion by Councilman Majdi was passed by a vote of 4-3.  The Town Council split along what I would characterize as pro- and anti-MAC lines, with the three dissenting votes being the pro-MAC DiRocco, Noble, and Colbert.


My speculation on the prior hour of discussion.

Near as I can tell, the context of this was a plan to rewrite the entire Town of Vienna zoning regulations. And I believe that the point of Majdi’s motion was to limit (or at least focus) the scope of that.

Now, I flagged that proposal to rewrite all the zoning when it first came up last year, per this post.  As I noted in that post, when introduced at that time, the purpose of rewriting the zoning was to encourage more redevelopment.  But the next time that came up, encouraging redevelopment had been dropped, and this was presented merely as a long-needed clean-up of numerous technical issues and ambiguities in the existing zoning law.  In fact, the second time around, the Mayor was motivated to assure us that this rewrite would not be used to change anything about the Town’s commercial zoning (documented in this post about the 1/17/2019 Town Council meeting).  And yet, the money to pay for this rewrite came from Fairfax County economic development funds — which are only available if Fairfax thinks that it will generate a net increase in tax revenues that will more than offset the initial expense.

So here’s how I see it:  The pro-MAC forces were slapped back during the last Town election.  About 75% of votes cast went to anti-MAC candidates.  So this “rewrite the entire code and don’t focus on MAC” may now have become a kind of end run.  I.e., the same Town Council members who strongly supported MAC now strongly support no longer focusing on rewriting MAC, but instead doing a rewrite of the entire Town of Vienna zoning ordinance.

My take on that is straightforward.  I’ve seen enough tricky stuff go on that I don’t trust this group to rewrite the Town zoning ordinances in a transparent and above-board fashion.  As I expressed in the “trust” section of Post #357, when I did my initial writeup of the 8/19/2019 Town Council meeting.  The mere fact that they can’t get the funds unless they promise significant additional tax revenues to Fairfax County, yet they simultaneously promise to Vienna citizens that nothing material would change —  that, by itself, should set off alarm bells for anyone who has been tracking these issues.