Post #540: Comprehensive plan

Posted on March 5, 2020
Source:  Vectorstock

Among the posts that I don’t want to write is a post about the role of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan.   Because I don’t want to write this, I’m going to keep it short and to the point.  You might even say blunt.

Reston:  Reston has gone through some turmoil recently over changing the zoning rules to allow increased housing density.  Newly-elected Board of Supervisors member Alcorn is now trying to address citizen concerns about that.

And the key point is that Board of Supervisors Member Alcorn isn’t addressing density in Reston by changing the zoning.  He’s doing that by addressing the Fairfax County comprehensive plan for Reston (reference 1, reference 2, reference 3, reference 4).  No need to read all four, they all say the same thing.

And the point of this posting is that maybe the Town of Vienna should take a clue from that.  About how a large, competent County government has chosen to move forward in addressing this issue.

What is a comprehensive plan?  Commonwealth statute requires that every local government (County, City, or Town) have a comprehensive plan (reference).  By statute, this plan is to be implemented, in part, by zoning ordinances (reference).  You can amend that plan at any time by going through the proper procedures (e.g., public hearing) (reference).

The Town of Vienna in fact amended its comprehensive plan just a couple of months ago, amending its plan to re-designate some parcels of land for public use.  By law, the Town must formally review (and possibly update) its plan no less than every five years (reference).  Nothing prevents the Town from reviewing or amending a plan more frequently than that.

In theory, the comprehensive plan controls what can and can’t be done in Vienna.  For example, if you want to narrow a street, say, in theory, you have to deal with a lengthy public process that involves changing the Town’s comprehensive plan (reference).  Basically, all your zoning changes and pretty much everything else having to do with land use and such has to be in agreement with the comprehensive plan.

The idea is to allow localities to develop in some sensible manner.  You would not, for example, want to allow for an increase in population without having the roads to serve that population.  (E.g., “As part of the comprehensive plan, each locality shall develop a transportation plan … and recommendations that … support the planned development.  (Reference)

Contrast Fairfax to the Town of Vienna.  So in that context, Board of Supervisors Member Alcorn’s approach to Reston is completely logical.  What guides the development of the area is the comprehensive plan.  Everything else — infrastructure projects, zoning changes, school system change, and so on — is supposed to flow from that plan, and be consistent with that plan.

The Town of Vienna is approaching this same issue, but doing it ass-backwards.  And making up lame excuses for doing so.  We’re now on track to rewrite all the zoning in Vienna, including letting a quarter-million-dollar contract for consulting help (see e.g. Post #481; Post #495).  And all of that will likely finish up before the Town does its next review of the comprehensive plan.  So instead of addressing the comprehensive plan first — which is the logical approach — we’re going to rewrite the zoning.  And then, presumably, rewrite the comprehensive plan to match it, if and where differences arise.

Ask why we’re doing it this way.  The Town’s nominal reason for doing it this way makes no sense.  Nominally, the rationale for not addressing the Comprehensive Plan first is that we need the 2020 Census data.  I think that’s a ludicrously flimsy excuse and have outlined my reasons for saying that in Post #512, Census nonsense.

But in fact, the Town has a recent history of rewriting the zoning, then rewriting the comprehensive “plan” to match the zoning.  That’s how we got MAC.  I already wrote this up in Post #454.  The Town Council passed MAC zoning under a comprehensive plan (the 2010 plan) that said nothing about mixed-use development on Maple.  And then turned around and re-wrote the comprehensive plan to match MAC zoning.

And so, where Fairfax County does things in the obvious order dictated by logic, in the Town of Vienna, that’s not the case.

Why does this matter?  And this ass-backwards approach, in turn, is important for the future of Vienna.  Why?  All new zoning has to match the existing Comprehensive Plan.  And the Maple Avenue portion of that plan, as noted above, was modeled after MAC zoning.  The upshot of which is that if Town Staff can get through the zoning rewrite, without modifying the comprehensive plan, they can then claim that they have to rewrite the new zoning along the MAC model … because that’s what the comprehensive plan calls for.  I.e., the claim will be that their hands are tied, and it would have been bordering on illegal to do otherwise.  And so this becomes an integral part of the “cram down” that I have hypothesized will occur at the end of the zoning rewrite process (e.g., Post #511, Post #483). 

And I think that’s why they explicitly wrote that into the draft request for proposal for their consultants for this project.  Many, many times.  Even though, in Virginia, the zoning has to comply with the Comprehensive Plan, they explicitly said in the RFP that … the zoning has to comply with the Comprehensive Plan.  Three times?  Four times?  Read it yourself, on this Town of Vienna web page.   I don’t think they wrote that into the document, so many times, for benefit of the consultants.  My best guess is that they wrote that there so that they could point to it, when this process generates new Maple Avenue zoning that is modeled after the existing MAC zoning.

Finally, at least in my world view, this is why we’ve already gotten a nonsensical answer from Town staff about Census 2020 and the comprehensive plan.  When literally no material aspect of the comprehensive plan depends on any likely variance between the actual 2020 Census count and current Census population projections for Vienna.  And I think this is why one gets such a visceral shoot-down from pro-MAC stalwarts on various boards and commissions, if one mentions doing this in the same order that Fairfax County is doing it — revise the Comprehensive Plan, then address zoning (e.g., Post #511).  Because only if you do it backwards, Vienna-style, are you guaranteed to get the pro-development result that Town staff are seeking.

Conclusion:  I’ve seen this sort of thing enough times from the Town of Vienna that it all starts to have the same feel to it.  Four floors really means five floors.  Mezzanine rules only apply to residential mezzanines.  Marco Pologate.  And now, no, we can’t possibly reconsider the comprehensive plan until the 2020 Census data are delivered in 2021.  At some level, you eventually realize that these things really are red flags.  That this sort of public dissembling is not part of the normal process of government.  And that if nobody else quite sees it that way, well, I’m going to continue to point out those red flags, as I see them.  Hence this post.