Post #276: Board of Zoning Appeals meeting on Sunrise, 5/15/2019

Posted on May 16, 2019

Sunrise assisted living would like to put a (roughly) 100-bed assisted living facility at the corner of Maple and Center.  Assisted living is a “conditional use” under MAC zoning, which means that Sunrise had to ask for a conditional use permit (CUP) from the Vienna Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).  The BZA heard that request from Sunrise last night, along with testimony from a couple of citizens. The BZA approved the CUP.  So this now goes to the Town Council for a public hearing on June 3.

There are few noteworthy things about this meeting.  More for the process issues than for the content.  I think it was a foregone conclusion that the CUP would be issued.  But how it was issued was, unusual, even in the context of MAC zoning.

You can download or listen to my audio recording of the MAC-related portion of this meeting at this Google Drive link.  Look for “2019-05-15 …”.


A change of plans

I mean this literally.  Sunrise changed the plans for the building about 90% of the way through the discussion. One set of plans was submitted originally, the BZA discussed those, the public offered comment on those.  The skimpy parking at the building was once again an issue.  The owner of the building next door got up and described the parking situation in that area, and noted that the planned parking for Sunrise appeared inadequate and was just going to make a bad parking situation worse.

And then — with no warning from either Sunrise or from Town staff — Sunrise swapped in a new set of plans.  Let me emphasize, this is during the meeting.  This is after the BZA hat spent almost the entire session discussing a different design for the building.  This is after public comment.  This is after the majority of time was spent discussing parking.  Apparently the new plans had been submitted earlier that day to the Town.

The new plans restructured the building to try to address the parking issue, based on Planning Commission suggestion to get rid of the retail space. Sunrise didn’t eliminate the retail space, but shrank it down to an oddly-shaped 2250 square feet, while leaving parking unchanged.  The reduction in retail use meant that more of the proposed parking would be allocated to (and presumably available for) use by the assisted living facility.

Admittedly, I’ve never had any business before the BZA, so I don’t know how they operate.  But changing the plans under discussion, almost at the end of the discussion, after public comment — that was a first for me. And the BZA and Town staff were fine with that.   And so, in effect, Sunrise got to judge the BZAs reaction to one set of plans, and when skimpy parking became an issue, were able to say, mid-stream, here, see if you like these new plans any better.

Just to underline the hastiness of this process, the representative from Sunrise — whose presentations to this point have been superb — was forced to read the new parking numbers off a hand-written sheet of paper.  While the rest of his team struggled to get a diagram of the new proposal up on the screen.

But there is a final ironic twist.  In making their decision, one of the five members of the BZA said — and this is almost a direct quote — parking is not under the purview of the BZA.  The point being, they were not going to stop this building at this stage, but rather, if parking is the issue, then that’s up to the Town Council to decide, not the BZA.  Assuming that’s true, it would have saved considerable time to have made that clear at the outset.

To a degree, the lack of clarity as to what, exactly, the BZA would and would not consider reminded me of the first time I sat in on a Board of Architectural Review (BAR) meeting.  It was not — and still is not — clear to me what is and is not within the purview of the BZA or the BAR.

And, I have to say, just like the 380 proposal, the scheduling here is tight as a drum.  Other aspects of the review, not so much.

Detail on parking

The data:  As I recall, Sunrise proposed to have around 56 total parking spaces.  They will have about 35 employees per shift.  They will have 83 units (rooms) and about 100 beds.  Of the parking places, 11 are ground-floor non-handicapped spots, and the rest are handicapped parking on the ground floor, or in the below-ground parking area.  And at this most recent iteration, they will have about 2250 square feet of retail space.

And so, roughly speaking, the question at hand is this:  How often will all 56 spaces be taken up between 1) 35 employees, 2) family and medical practitioners visiting 100 residents, and 3) whoever drives in to use the retail space.

Holidays not included

Let me put aside the key holidays:  Mother’s Day, and then (for an elderly population that is overwhelming Christian) Easter and Christmas.  Based on my limited experience with assisted living facilities, that site will be overwhelmed on those days, both for the parking, and for the loading and unloading of passengers.  It takes a long time to get a frail elderly person into our out of an assisted living facility.

The reason I don’t care about the key holidays is that Patrick Henry library will be closed.  Obviously the library parking lot will serve as the de facto overflow parking for Sunrise on those key holidays.  I say “obviously”, but nobody can say that in these formal discussions, so I’m saying it here.  People can park there all day on Sunday and I don’t think anyone will hassle them.  And in addition, other businesses adjacent to the proposed Sunrise are closed Sunday morning, and their empty lots provide de facto short-term parking for resident pick-up on those holidays.  That’s private property, so you can’t guarantee “no hassle”, but seriously, if your business is closed Sundays, are you really going to tow a family taking Grandma out to lunch on Easter?

It would benefit everyone, I think, if Sunrise literally directed families of fully ambulatory residents to use that lot on these holidays, thus freeing up the congested space in and around the building for loading and unloading of the frailest residents.  But in all likelihood, people will figure this out on their own.

Existing facilities do indeed get “parked up”

The parking for this building is interesting because the Town simply allowed Sunrise to tell it how much parking Sunrise thought that the building needed.  And the amount that Sunrise came up with — 0.4 spaces per unit (apartment) — appears low, and appears to be lower than the amount Fairfax will require for such facilities.

One citizen (and not Planning and Zoning) found and highlighted what I consider to be the key point from the background studies on parking for assisted living facilities.  Several existing local facilities do, in fact, routinely get 100% parked up.  During the period in which the parking study took place, they observed periods when every space was filled.

When that occurs, a) parking was not adequate, because there was no parking available, and b) you don’t actually know what the demand for parking was, because people who wanted to visit those facilities had to park their cars elsewhere.

If I heard correctly, these maxed-out periods typically occurred mid-afternoon.  It was characterized as being around the time that the workers changed shifts, which would certainly make sense.  One BZA member pointed out that, in all likelihood, workers for this facility will drive here, due both to limited bus transit down Maple, and because workers will likely be coming from lower-cost-of-living areas west of here, which are areas not served by Metro.

The point being that even if 0.4/unit is adequate on average, the evidence suggests a fairly high risk that it is not adequate to handle routine daily peak demand.  And this was not theoretical — this was  based on observations in local assisted living facilities.

To be clear, the revised Sunrise plans work out to just over 0.5 spaces per unit now, assuming I heard the Sunrise representative correctly.  I would still say that the consensus was that parking … skirts the edge of adequacy, I guess I’d have to say.  Not generous in anyone’s estimate.

Other concerns

One citizen brought up the issue that had been raised at the prior Planning Commission meeting:  There are many health and operations issues that Fairfax County considers when judging an assisted living facility, and we are not competent to assess them. 

A simple example was asking whether Fairfax’s assessment might question placing this building at one of the busiest intersections in town.  Is this a good idea for a population with significant mobility, cognitive, and sensory deficits?

None of those questions will be asked or answered.  The BZA had no interest in that, and instead more-or-less accepted Sunrise’s self-assessment that they are experienced in these issue and already successfully operate urban facilities in the Northern Virginia area.  My recollection is that the BZA was more or less tacit on this issue after that, which I interpret as saying that they accepted Sunrise’s argument.  Sunrise also pointed out that other jurisdictions do not require that sort of review.

To me, the issue is not about the care provided in this building.  The Commonwealth has adequate safeguards, Sunrise has a good reputation, and some quality information is made public.  Sunrise will be licensed by the Commonwealth’s Department of Social Services, and that department will conduct inspections four times a year.  Sunrise will meet all applicable care standards in order to retain their license.   Moreover, at least historically, any formal complaints about care in these facilities is public information (although I could not find a recent copy of Fairfax County Ombudsman’s listing of those complaints.)

Instead, I wonder what guidance, if any, Fairfax’s expert board would have on this particular location.  I believe that Fairfax requires the facilities to be located on no less than five acres, and sets minimum open space requirements.  I thought it would of interest to know why they do that.

The only other concern that I recall getting much questioning from BZA was the “vibrancy” issue — a word I have come to loathe in my dealings with MAC zoning.  Does placing an assisted living facility at the very center of down meet the “vibrancy” criterion of MAC zoning.

One citizen offered an emphatic no.  Per his argument, the Town of Vienna is finally starting to have a true Town center in this area, and an assisted living facility would not help that.

Sunrise offered a different view. In the revised building, the ground floor will have the appearance of a fine restaurant.  And you will generate traffic for local restaurants as families take their elderly relatives out to dinner.  So there may be some foot traffic to restaurants within walking distance.  (And, frankly, given how little foot traffic there is on our sidewalks, any addition could be noticeable.)

In terms of being an integral part of a new Vienna town center, my guess is, on net, Sunrise doesn’t belong.   It’s not going to contribute to vibrancy.  One reason is objective, one is just my opinion.

First, best guess, the overwhelming majority of individuals who will use this facility will not be long-term Vienna residents.  Nor will they be residents of Vienna for very long, once they arrive here. 

Based on national average use rates and our demographics, 40 assisted living facility beds should be adequate to serve the entire Town of Vienna population.  (Might be more, because we are wealthier than average, but that’s hard to quantify).  Moreover, the move to assisted living frequently is done to move parents closer to children.  Put those two together, it’s a good bet that elderly long-term residents of Vienna will almost certainly be a minority of patients.

In addition, for most, assisted living is a relatively brief stopping place in a period of decline.   Based on a variety of sources, the average (median) length-of-stay in assisted living is about 22 months, and the average (median) facility has somewhere around a 45% resident turnover annually.  Individuals pass briefly through assisted living and then into higher levels of care (skilled nursing facility) or death.

It’s not correct to think of the proposed assisted living facility as Vienna institution the way a local school, church, or even coffee shop might be.  It’s more akin to a local hospital.  It’s a health care establishment located in Vienna, but drawing clientele from a broad geographic area.  And that clientele will pass through the facility at a relatively rapid rate.

Second, I have a subjective reason for thinking this will reduce rather than enhance “vibrancy” of the center of Vienna.  I associate assisted living with the deaths of my mother and mother-in-law.  That’s an emotional, not a rational, cause-and-effect association.  But to me, an assisted living facility is a reminder of their mortality and, by association, my own.  I’m not sure I’ll cross the street to avoid walking past the windows of their dining room.  But I’d surely consider it.