Post #454: If only we had a parks master plan?

Posted on November 10, 2019

Page 120, Town of Vienna 2015 Comprehensive Plan.  Areas in red have adequate access to parks, per our definition.

Vienna parks map


“If only we had a parks master plan, we could then ask MAC developers to proffer funds for Vienna parks.”

I’ve heard that said, in various forms, by various Town authorities.  Most recently, it was said in passing at the last Town Council meeting.  I even repeated that in Post #442, about ways to get open space from MAC.

And yet, something about that has always seemed a bit off to me.  Given the importance that citizens place on open space, then, well, why don’t we have a master plan for parks?  What’s stopping us?  Who’s in charge of getting that done?  And so on.

For sure, if this is bound up with the required once-every-five-year review of the Town comprehensive plan, we have the option to review and modify the comprehensive plan at any point.  We don’t have to wait for that.  The law says “at least” every five years, not at most.

So I am struck by the incredible discrepancy between the effort going into rewriting the entire Town of Vienna zoning code — hiring more staff, a quarter-million-dollar contract to a consultant, and so on — versus the (zero?  low-key?) effort to get a parks master plan written.  It’s almost as if having a parks master plan doesn’t really matter, in terms of getting proffers for park land.

And maybe it doesn’t.

After doing my homework, I believe that opening sentence is incorrect.  At least, as things stand now, and as I vaguely understand proffers.  Putting economics aside (i.e., can developers afford to pay for that, and bury the power lines, and provide open space on Maple, and so on), I think it’s a false hope.

Briefly (with detail to follow):

  1. We’ve already stated that Maple Avenue has good access to parks, in our comprehensive plan.  That’s shown on the map above — the red circles are the parts of the Town of Vienna within a quarter-mile of some park.
  2. We’ve defined our parks problem as one of access, not parks acreage per capita.  Adding more people (on Maple) therefore literally can’t create a problem with access to parks, by our measure.  Again, we stated this in our comprehensive plan.
  3. There’s not even a demonstrable problem for Vienna as a whole in terms of park acres per capita.  If you calculate park acreage per capita for Vienna versus other local jurisdictions, we are not particularly short of park space.
  4. So we can’t ask Maple Avenue developers to proffer funds for more parks.  We can only ask for a proffer if we can prove that their development is directly causing a problem.  But, per our current comprehensive plan, there isn’t (and can’t be) a park access problem caused by development on Maple.

The upshot is that I think we need to eliminate that section of the comprehensive plan, first, before we even have a shot at asking for proffers for parks.  And I think it’s possible that because we’ve already said what we said in the current comprehensive plan, we may not be able to ask for proffers for parks, period.  That’s something the lawyers would have to figure out.

Separately, I found out a few oddities about our Vienna’s current (2015) comprehensive plan.  I’ll summarize those at the end.  Turns out, the Town is well aware of these issues, as they were pointed out in 2016.

1: We’ve already stated that Maple Avenue has good access to parks, in our comprehensive plan.  That’s shown on the map above — the red circles are the parts of the Town of Vienna within a quarter-mile of some park.

Here’s what the Town of Vienna says it needs to do for parks, in the current comprehensive plan (.pdf, page 119):

Several “service gaps” exist in Town. Service gaps are defined as areas where residents do not have access to Town parks within a 5-10 minute walk from their homes. The map on Page 120 shows these gaps. Salsbury Spring was not included in this analysis due to its use as a passive park. The Town should consider ways to expand parks and recreational options in areas not located within close walking distance of existing parks.

If you look on the map above, most of Maple Avenue is (mostly) not in a “service gap”.  Most of Maple is within a quarter-mile of some park.  It’s mostly the areas in the south of town, well away from Maple, where there are large “service gaps”.

2: We’ve defined our parks problem as one of access, not parks acreage per capita.  The comprehensive plan map above shows roughly quarter-mile rings around each park.  That quarter-mile figure is commonly used by urban planners the distance that most individuals would routinely walk.

There’s nothing said about the size of the park, relative to the size of the population its supposed to serve.  Given that the Town chose to identify park adequacy this way, adding more people (on Maple) literally can’t create a problem with access to parks.  Our measure isn’t based on park acres per capita, it’s based solely on whether or not you can plausibly way to some park.

3:  Further, by calculation, Vienna as a whole is not short of park space per capita relative to other local jurisdictions. 

Falls Church did that analysis in its Parks for People document (.pdf).  Vienna is middle-of-the-road in terms of locally-run park acres per capita, and this does not even count (e.g.) the W&OD park and other parks not under Vienna’s sole control.  We rank ahead of Falls Church, but behind the City of Fairfax.

3B:  An aside on Vienna parks.

The Vienna number in the table above is close to, but not identical to, what I get when I do that calculation.  And that’s in part because it’s not clear what should and should not be counted as a park.  And much of Vienna’s park land is not owned outright by the Town of Vienna.

Town of Vienna parks, were, at least originally, almost totally unplanned.  Some parks, such as Meadow Lane, were built on land donated by developers (.pdf).  But Southside and Northside parks are there because they were once the location of the Town’s main sewage treatment plants (.pdf).  They became parks after the Town connected to regional sewage treatment facilities.  In effect, they are located for maximum inconvenience.  They were put as far away from the bulk of the (then) Vienna population as possible.   It is unsurprising, then, that the Town’s comprehensive plan notes the uneven distribution of park area throughout the Town.

Oddly, the second-largest park in Vienna, by acreage, is the W&OD trail.  The right-of-way is about 100′ wide, and the Vienna portion is two miles long, resulting in 24 acres of park.  (My calculation there exactly matches what is shown on the Fairfax County tax map.)

If you count all the more-or-less public park areas within the Town of Vienna, it looks like this.  Note that the inclusion of park areas not directly or solely controlled by Vienna boosts the 6.7 acres per 1000 (above) to 8.3 acres.

4:  So we can’t ask Maple Avenue developers to proffer funds for more parks.  We can only ask for a proffer if we can prove that their development is directly causing a problem.  But, per our current comprehensive plan, there isn’t (and can’t be) a park access problem caused by development on Maple.

Here’s a short summary, though I’m not sure it’s the best summary, of the law.  You have to prove that development is placing some burden on some public facility above its existing capacity; you have to prove that the developer benefits from this public facility; and you can only charge in proportion to the developer’s actual impact on that facility, among all users.

My point is, we don’t even have a concept of what “capacity” means for Town of Vienna parks.  Our sole measure of park adequacy, in our comprehensive plan, is based on distance to the nearest park.  And, on the whole, we are not “over capacity” in our parks, at least in terms of how we stack up against other local jurisdictions in terms of park acres per capita.

Given that everything in Vienna is supposed to conform to the comprehensive plan, I think this makes it an uphill battle to ask for proffers for the parks.  To the contrary, the language of the current comprehensive plan seems to make that absolutely impossible.


First, I’m not a lawyer, so take this all with a grain of salt.  Maybe there’s some way to dodge around what appears to me to be the plain reading of the comprehensive plan and Virginia’s proffer law.

Second, if there were some newly-defined zone, solely for Maple Avenue, that defined some need for open public space along Maple, then maybe you could get the proffers that way.  Put the need for public plazas along Maple into the comprehensive plan, defined a target for such plaza space per Maple Avenue acre in the comprehensive plan, and ask that new development target the provision of that much open space.  Maybe that would be legal.  But that’s not a parks master plan, that’s specific to Maple Avenue.

Third, it would be a lot simpler if the Town would just buy open space if it wants it. Maybe the upshot is that, as far as open space from MAC development is concerned, the Town is going to have to do it the hard way:  Pay for it.

Fourth, I think this also makes the idea of using the Patrick Henry library site as a way to buy some sheltered public green space along Maple even more critical (Post #369, Post #371  The alternative is to believe that, despite evidence so far to the contrary, we can write a law that will require developers to provide pleasant, open public space.

Finally, a close look at the comprehensive plan reveals some oddities.

First, Commonwealth statute says that every locality must review its comprehensive plan at least every five years.  Nothing prevents the Town from updating it more frequently than that.

Second, for the last revision, the Town took two years to do an extensive revision of the plan.  They started in 2013, ended substantive work in 2015, and Town Council adopted the document in 2016.  Clearly, they are not planning to do much this time around, or certainly nothing like that effort.

Third, the comprehensive plan in effect when MAC was passed (2014) was the 2010 plan, which says nothing about mixed-use development on Maple.  So the Town passed MAC, then appears to have modeled that portion of the (2015) comprehensive plan after the MAC statute.  I don’t think it’s supposed to work that way.  But, this being Town of Vienna, I guess that doesn’t matter.

I am not the first one to note this, as a citizen made this exact point at the March 23, 2016 Planning Commission meeting.

Fourth, I can’t tell when the next plan review is due, as the the Town mentions many different dates.

So, the 2010 comprehensive plan is referred to as the March 15, 2010 plan, and states clearly and unambiguously:

Approved as amended by the Planning Commission: January 27, 2010
Adopted by the Mayor and Town Council: March 15, 2010

But the 2015 comprehensive plan?  Well, you tell me.  The only clear statement is:

Adopted by Town Council on May 23, 2016

Assuming that’s true, then the Town of Vienna did not comply with Commonwealth statute.  More than five years elapsed between the prior review and the current one.  Again, I am not the first person to have noted that.  In the April 13, 2016 Planning Commission meeting, a citizen brought up this exact point, and the Town asserted that because it began its review of the comprehensive plan before the five years were up, then it had not violated the spirit of the law.  Or some such.  Basically, typical Town of Vienna.

The current document does not say when the Planning Commission approved the “2015” comprehensive plan, but it appears that there was one joint hearing in which the PC and TC did their thing, and the plan was adopted.  In 2016.  So it looks like there is only one date for the current comprehensive plan.

Trying to read between the lines, it looked like something chaotic was going on at that point.  This is the 2015 plan.  But it was passed in 2016.  There appears to have been no formal approval by the Planning Commission prior to literally the public hearing where the Town Council passed it.  All of that seems quite unusual compared to prior comprehensive plans.  But I have no idea why.

I think the upshot of all that is that the Town won’t have to (begin to) review the Comprehensive Plan again until 2021.  I have to wonder what other towns do, and if they have adopted the same interpretation of the law as the Town of Vienna.  In any case, Vienna could choose to do that review and change the comprehensive plan prior to that date.