Post #506: Tonight’s Town Council meeting

Posted on January 6, 2020

There are at least three interesting agenda items for tonight’s Town Council meeting.  You can find the meeting materials on this page.  One has to do with “vacating” town alleyways (i.e., selling the land to an abutting land owner).  A second has to do with the Town setting a goal for the “level of service” on Maple Avenue, that is, a goal for the most congestion it will tolerate before trying to do something about it.  Third, the Town is finalizing plans to hire a contractor to tell them how much it will cost to put the utility lines underground along Maple.

Vacating alleyways

Meeting materials are located on this page.

The Town of Vienna has a substantial number of disused alleyways.  These are small strips of land separating commercial and industrial properties from residential areas or from other commercial/industrial properties.

In some cases, the Town owns the land outright. In other cases, the Town merely has a easement that would allow the use of the strip of land as an alley.  Where the Town owns the land, it may, at its discretion, “vacate” the alleyway and sell the land to the abutting land owners.

You can find some of these alleyways using publicly-available map tools.  Near as I can tell, Town-owned alleyways show up as distinct areas on Google Maps, and if you click on them on the Fairfax County tax maps, they show as having no private owner (they default to the “map boundary”).   By contrast, easements do not appear on these maps, as they do not represent a boundary between land owners.

Here are a couple of examples.  The first is the alleyway separating the new Wawa and other Maple Avenue business from the adjacent houses on Windover Avenue.  The second separates the backs of businesses along Mill Dominion from the adjacent houses on Center Street.

These disused alleyways often provide a roughly 15-foot-wide vegetated buffer between housing and businesses.  But, thanks to the unfortunate events at the new Wawa, we now know that buffer could disappear overnight, at the Town’s discretion.

So, recall what happened at the Wawa (Post #467 and following).  A piece of disused Town alleyway separates the Wawa lot from the neighbors, as shown above.  That piece of land supported several mature (~60-year-old) silver maples and provided screening between Wawa and the abutting single-family home.  Wawa made clear that they intended to protect those trees, and that protection was written into the site plan.  But, at the suggestion of the Town’s arborist, Wawa’s contractor clear-cut the area.

It now appears that some homeowners abutting Town alleyways have become “woke” to this risk.  So, for example, some sort of tree-trimming in the alleyway behind Starbucks was halted (on Thanksgiving morning) because the abutting neighbors noticed it and called the police.

And so, at tonight’s Town Council meeting, we have one such homeowner (207 Center St. N) petitioning to buy half of the disused alleyway behind his home.  His reason?  If redevelopment occurs there, he doesn’t want to lose the trees that current screen his property from the abutting commercial property.

Separately, the business just down the street (108 Center) wants to purchase the adjacent bit of alleyway.  Looking at various maps, that appears to be mostly paved.  The business owner wants to preserve that as  to preserve it as parking for employees and customers.

I can’t say whether this portends some sort of land rush for the remaining disused alleyways in Vienna.  But it’s certainly more of this  activity than I’ve seen in the past couple of years.

Level-of-Service standard for Maple

Meeting materials are located on this page.

The gist of this is that, for the first time, the Town of Vienna would explicitly set goals for traffic flow on Maple.  These goals would be part of the Town’s comprehensive plan.  Apparently, they would be expressed using “level of service” grades, from A through F.

This is so out-of-the-blue that I don’t really understand where it’s coming from.

For sure, the County has already scoped out what it would take to raise certain Maple Avenue intersections to a “D” level of service.  To cut to the chase, it would take widening Maple Avenue to add lanes at those intersections (see Post #456).

But, as near as I can tell, it’s an unwritten, un-voted-upon, un-discussed, and un-breakable rule that the Town of Vienna Town Council will not consider widening Maple Avenue in any way.  This unspoken ban on widening Maple is what appears to lead to some of the … well, downright nutty … suggestions in the Town’s current “multimodal” Maple Avenue traffic study (Post #464).

So I’m not at all clear as to the intent of this, or what the Town would do in the event that the “level of service” is below what the Town’s comprehensive plan deems acceptable.

The only detail I will point out is that the Town staff presentation says that the Town’s Comprehensive Plan cannot be modified prior to 2021, because the last Comprehensive Plan was nominally dated 2016.  I’ll just point out two serious issues that that statement.

If the last Town plan really is dated 2016, then the Town violated Commonwealth statute, because the prior Town plan is dated 2010.  The Commonwealth requires localities to update their comprehensive plans at least every five years.  When the Town rewrote the comprehensive plan to conform to MAC in 2015/2016, they left the date of passage deliberately ambiguous.  On paper, at least, the Planning Commission approved the 2015 plan exactly five years after the 2010 plan, literally to the day.  So that’s titled the 2015 plan.  But the Town Council didn’t approve the plan until the next year.  So for purposes of satisfying Commonwalth law, they treated it as the 2015 plan.  But for purposes of timing when the next comprehensive plan review must occur, now it appears to be treated as the 2016 plan.

Second, and more fundamentally, Commonwealth statute says that the Comprehensive plan must be reviewed at least every five years, not at most every five years.  So, per this clause in Commonwealth statute:

15.2-2230. Plan to be reviewed at least once every five years.
At least once every five years the comprehensive plan shall be reviewed by the local planning commission to determine whether it is advisable to amend the plan.

How on earth you get from the plain language of “at least once every five year” to staff conclusion that the review can occur at most once every five years, I have no clue.  I surely see no legal barrier to reviewing the plan more frequently than once every five years.

What’s worse, again per Commonwealth statute, it appears that the Town can make amendments to the Comprehensive plan at any time, as long as they properly advertise those amendments.

And, hilariously enough, the Town is, right now, in the process of … wait for it … making amendments to the Comprehensive plan.  In fact, that will be discussed at Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting.  See the Planning Commission meeting materials on this web page.

Let me put it this way.  If Comprehensive Plan amendments can only be made every five years, what the heck is the Planning Commission doing on Wednesday?

Separately, I’ll point out that the amendments to the Comprehensive plan are, in part, to allow the Town to use the house that it purchased on Beulah as a police department facility.  This is the same house for which the Town swore it had no use in mind when it bought it, even though, at that time, that appeared to be clearly untrue, as mentioned briefly in this link.


Cost of putting the utilities underground on Maple.

Meeting materials are on this page.

The Town is finally getting around to figuring out how much it will cost to put the utility lines underground along Maple.  In this meeting, they will let hire the contractor who will do that study.

This is more than half-a-decade after passing MAC, but better late than never.  I also note that the Town is now squirreling away a quarter-million-dollars per year, in anticipation of eventually paying to have (some portion of) the Maple Avenue utility lines put underground.  My best guess, in Post #210, is that, at that rate, they’ll need a century to accumulate the needed funds.