Post #697: Town elections, see Post #508

See Post #508, from January 9, 2020 and earlier, on splitting the vote and political suicide.  My numbers were a little off.  But not much.

Votes Percent
Colbert 1545 43%
Majdi 1172 33%
Springsteen 869 24%
Total 3586 100%

#530: Our assets become our liabilities #5: Large tracts of land remaining in Vienna

In Post #526, I pointed out the absurdity of using eight acres of prime land in Vienna — in the middle of a residential neighborhood — for the Town’s leaf mulching activities.  Previously, I had written about the likely fate of the Parkwood school (Post #397), and had written up a few other local tracts of land in and around Vienna (in this post).

That got me to thinking:  Just how many significant tracts of land are left in the Town of Vienna?   Let me define that as pieces of land that are:

  • Not in the Maple Avenue or other retail /commercial zones
  • Three or more acres in extent (enough to make a small park, say), and
  • Privately held, with one owner.
  • Excluding Westwood Country Club and Navy Federal Credit Union (and associated buildings).

The point of this is to ask how many opportunities that Town might have to add to its inventory of parks.  Basically, if the Town is bound and determined to add thousands of new residents along Maple, what sort of opportunities might come up for the Town to buy some significant chunks of land for additional parks, to serve those additional residents?

With that rationale, I am ignoring the two largest tracts of privately-owned land in Vienna:  Westwood Country Club (157 acres) and the Navy Federal Credit Unit/FBI/Other industrial area (about 66 acres).  These are a) too large for the Town plausibly to purchase, and b) unlikely to be up for sale at any price the Town could possibly afford.

Another way to say it is, how rare is it for the Town to have the opportunity to buy a significant piece of land?  How nearly unique is an asset such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which sits at the end of my street.  How many chances to purchase land can the Town pass on before there are no more opportunities left?

To try to answer this, I did the simplest thing:  I looked at some maps, looking for large pieces of undivided land.  I scanned both Google Maps and the Fairfax County property tax maps. So I may have missed one or two, but I’m reasonably confident of the following answer:

The short answer is:  few.  There are only a handful of large pieces of land left in Vienna, and most of those are unlikely to go up for sale now or in near future decades.  So if one of these does come up for sale, it should be treated like the once-in-a-generation event that it is.

Here’s what I come up with, as my inventory.  Unsurprisingly, it consists almost entirely of tax-exempt land, both churches and non-profit corporations such as swim clubs.

I count fewer than a dozen such tracts.  Of these:

  • Seven are churches or church-related properties.
  • Two are swim clubs.
  • Two are schools.

It sure looks like the Town of Vienna remains committed to growth.  The Town government is in the process of redoing all the zoning, with funding from Fairfax County based on how much additional tax revenue the resulting additional development will create.  The Town now recently hired its first Economic Development manager.  And so on.  If there’s nothing we can do to dissuade the Town government from moving in that direction, maybe we can at least ask them to have some sort of plan to preserve some open space by having plans, in hand, for purchasing one or more of these, if they come up for sale.

Post #463: A couple of reports on the Chick-fil-a-car-wash gathering space/driveway.

In this article I’m just reporting two things that were recently pointed out to me by my wife, who in turn was clued in by friends.  The issue is whether or not people are going to use the “gathering space” in front of the Chick-fil-a-car-wash as a driveway.  We have our initial evidence, thanks to a sharp-eyed colleague.

Recall Post #431, where I asked whether the Chick-fil-a-car-wash “gathering space” was a sham.  The idea is that the drive-through there literally cannot function unless some cars are allowed to drive across the brick patio in front of the store.  Briefly, unlike a normal drive-through, there’s no place to go if there’s a problem with your order, unless you can drive across that front patio to get back to a parking place.

Observation #1:  Look carefully at the little green car.  Off to the left.   Driving across the plaza.

Source:  Catherine Douglas Morgan, “Two Story Flagship Car Wash Now Open in the Town of Vienna”, Tyson’s Reported 11/18/2019, accessible at this link:

OK, so that’s somewhat amusing.  Plausibly, that’s an old rendering, before the Town got them to agree to a “No Left Turn” sign at the exit to the drive-through.

Observation #2:  Less amusing, drivers have already figured out to use that plaza in the other direction when traffic is heavy.  A colleague reported that during a particularly bad back-up last week, on that section of Maple, she saw a driver who was heading toward Vienna drive down the McDonald’s access road, across the plaza, and exit onto Maple at the Chick-fil-a drive-through.  That put them about a dozen cars ahead of where they would have been, if they’d driven up the access road (toward Oakton) and exited onto Maple at the McDonald’s.

Northern Virginia, traffic backup, you can get a dozen cars ahead if you use that plaza as a driveway?  In hindsight, of course somebody’s going to do that.  I never would have guessed it ahead of time.  I’m not sure there’s a “No Entry” sign there.  But of course they are.

Commentary:  All it would take is a couple of large moveable objects, and Chick-fil-A could block vehicular access to that brick patio/gathering space.  They could prevent cars from using it, will still allowing their delivery truck to use it to drop off their freight.

My bet is, they aren’t going to do that.  For exactly the reason stated in Post #431.  Seems to me that they need to keep it open, to handle botched orders in the drive-through line.

In the grand scheme of things, this hardly matters.  That area is so close to the road that you’d have to be kind of desperate (or deaf) to try to use it as any sort of community “gathering space”.

But the fact that the “gathering space” is also going to be a driveway raises the idea that maybe the benefits of MAC have been a touch over-sold.  It’s hard for me to look at that structure and say what useful or beneficial things the citizens of Vienna got from that, that they would not have gotten from by-right construction under the existing commercial zoning.


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

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.

Post #442: Open space: There has to be a better way.

Note:  I accidentally posted this before I was finished.  As of 12:20 PM 11/1/2019, the post is now done.

The picture above is what I would term a typical AM rush hour on Maple, looking down 123 toward Oakton.  The blocky gray building is the (then) unfinished Chick-fil-a-car-wash.  And this post is my plea for the Town of Vienna to contemplate this picture for one minute, and then re-think its entire approach to “open space” under MAC zoning.


Continue reading Post #442: Open space: There has to be a better way.

Post #430: Pop quiz on “gathering space”.

Consider two small restaurants that are completely identical, except that one is fully enclosed, and one is open to the outdoors.  One has 10 tables, located in a little storefront along Maple Avenue.  The other has 10 tables under an awning, adjacent to the Maple Avenue sidewalk.  They serve identical menus, charge identical prices, and do an identical amount of business.  And for either one, you can’t use the tables unless you buy something to eat.

Separately, one restaurant is part of a building that sits on a 2.99 acre parcel of land.  The other restaurant is part of a building that sits on a 3.00 acre parcel of land.

Clear?  Nearly identical restaurants on nearly identical parcels of land.

And now, two questions, with answers provided below.

Question 1:  Which of the following statements is true, regarding proposed Maple Avenue zoning:

A:  The Town offers a bonus for the indoor restaurant seating.

B:  The Town offers a bonus for the outdoor restaurant seating.

C:  The Town is neutral about the choice of indoor or outdoor seating.

Question 2:  Which is true, regarding the two parcels of land that these restaurants sit on, under the proposed MAC zoning revisions. 

A:  The Town requires twice as much open space on the 2.99 acre parcel.

B:  The Town requires twice as much open space on the 3.00 acre parcel.

A:  The Town treats the two parcels more-or-less the same.

To the best of my understanding, the correct answers are B and B.

For question 1:  Builders have to reserve some minimum amount of “gathering space” on property redeveloped under MAC zoning.  The new “gathering space” requirement replaces the existing “open space” requirement.  If they don’t provide enough “gathering space”, they can’t redevelop the lot under MAC.

The 10 outdoor restaurant tables, accessible from the sidewalk, appear to count as “gathering space”, while the indoor tables definitely do not.  That makes the 10 outdoor tables much more valuable to the builder.  The indoor tables are simply commercial space.  The outdoor tables are not only commercial space, but in addition help satisfy the “gathering space” requirement.

For question 2:  The proposed law literally has a sharp cutoff at exactly 3 acres.    The Town doubles the “gathering space” requirement if the lot is 3 acres or more.  The 2.99 acre lot is required to reserve 10% of the (buildable area of the) lot as “gathering space”.  The 3.00 acre lot is required to reserve 20% of the lot as “gathering space”.

Aside:  The proposed law is actually substantially worse than that.  Not only does it require 10% more “gathering space”, but developers can sidestep that if they provide “cottage housing”.  Any cottage housing, as the draft currently reads.

Commentary:    The “open space” requirement was arguably the single most screwed-up part of the MAC statute.  You can read an old writeup of it here.

Here’s the problem:  It’s not getting any better.   It’s different under the proposed MAC.  It’s now “gathering space” instead of “open space”.  But in terms of double-counting spaces, allowing little dribs and drabs of space to count, and so on, it’s more-or-less no better than it was.  One truly goofy part of the prior law was eliminated, in that courtyards that are completely internal to a building, and only accessible to building residents, will not count as “gathering space” (but did count as “open space”).  But otherwise, pretty much all the things that made the prior requirement worthless still remain.

And now we are weaponizing it with some fairly significant financial incentives.  Build a restaurant with three sides, that counts.  Add that fourth wall, so that the same space can be used in winter, and it doesn’t count.  Cross that 3.0 acre line, and you are slapped with a big penalty.  But build some cottage housing, and you dodge the penalty.

And so, as the Town now changes this requirement, and uses it to create new and untested financial incentives, I think maybe it needs to step back and ask “what, exactly, are we likely to get with this “gathering space” requirement?”.

First, to be clear, you aren’t getting public parks.  This “gathering space” is private property.  It’s not a park, in the sense of Town-owned land open to the public.  It might be a space where you could (e.g.) stroll up and sit on a bench.  It might be a space where you’d feel like you were intruding on private property if you did that.  And it might be a strictly pay-for-play space, such as an outdoor restaurant.   And it might be nothing more than a broad sidewalk.

Second, we should have enough sense to do a little arithmetic, to get some idea of what we’d be getting under the proposed law.  Are we getting anything more than a broad sidewalk as mandatory “gathering space”?

In some cases, the answer is easily shown to be no.  For example, if the Wawa parcel were redeveloped under MAC, the existing, legally-required setbacks from the roadways would far more than satisfy the “gathering space” requirement.

The Town is proposing to have a 28′ setback from the Maple Avenue curb, and a 20′ setback from any other major street.  That’s already required.  In both cases, maybe 12′ of that will be literally in the Town’s right-of-way, and so is not private property that counts as “gathering space”.  The new Wawa sits on a lot that’s about 37,000 square feet.  If that were redeveloped under Maple, something under 3700 square feet would have to be gathering space.  (Under, because only the “buildable area” counts, that is, area of the lot excluding the mandatory setbacks and such.)  The portion of the Maple Avenue setback that is private property is about (170′ long x 16′ deep =) 2720 square feet.  The portion of the Nutley Street setback that is private property is (330′ long x 8′ deep =) 2640 square feet.  Together, that’s 5360 square feet.  The setbacks alone vastly exceed the required amount of “gathering space”.

Is this what the Town meant when it asked for “parks and plazas” along Maple, as part of MAC zoning?  A broader sidewalk?  How did we get from that simple desire, to this outcome?

Post #382: An obituary for questions that will not be answered.

How is the Town going about rewriting its zoning laws, including MAC zoning?  Is this process likely to have a good outcome?

I’ve written four throwaway pieces on issues that I thought needed to be addressed as the Town moves forward on Maple Avenue redevelopment.  But at this point, I fully realize that I’m just talking to myself.  The Town is scheduled to rewrite its entire commercial zoning code, including MAC, finishing about five months from now, in February 2020.  So, more-or-less none of what I’m going to write below is going to be addressed.  That said, I’m going to roll up everything of value from the prior posts, listed below.  And then, at that point, I don’t think I have anything left to say.

  • Post #304, Where do we go from here, Part I.
  • Post #306, Where do we go from here, Part II, Falls Church
  • Post #322:  Moving forward (where do we go from here, Part 3).
  • Post #327:  Some basic questions to ask before modifying MAC zoning.

In effect, this posting is my obituary for all the questions that aren’t going to be answered, and all the things that aren’t going to be done.  As the Town proceeds to rewrite its entire commercial zoning code.

Now, that’s kind of a cheap shot — “Here’s what needs to be asked” — except for the fact that I’ve already given my best answer for what to do.  That answer aimed to address what I measured or perceive to be the main concerns of Vienna citizens.  As outlines in Post 322 above, my solution would be:

  1. Three story buildings.
  2. True open space requirements.
  3. Concrete, quantifiable changes to offset increased traffic.

Great.  Opinions are like bellybuttons, as the clean version of that phrase goes.   Or maybe, “that and $0.50 will get you a phone call.”   It’s great to toss out some sketchy off-the-cuff answer.  But the real questions are, what is the Town government capable of doing?  And then, what is the Town actually going to do? Continue reading Post #382: An obituary for questions that will not be answered.

Planning Commission work session 3/13/2019

I attended the 3/13/2019 Town of Vienna Planning Commission work session.  The purpose of this was to review proposed changes to the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning law.  This page is a summary of the high points.  I will post my audio file of the meeting, with index, as soon as I have processed it to remove noise.

Briefly:  Five floors, cram ’em in, and pave it over.  And hurry up about it. That’s pretty much the gist of the proposed changes.  There was a rear-guard action by Commissioners Gelb and Kenney to slow that down.  But that’s definitely where the Planning Commission and Department of Planning and Zoning are headed.

Continue reading Planning Commission work session 3/13/2019

Draft changes to MAC zoning, 2/17/2019

The Town has posted their proposed changes MAC zoning.  You can find this 50+ page .pdf on this page.

I have read it, and I have detailed comments, to be posted at some other time.  Because here, the details don’t much matter.  Let me attempt to boil it down to just four key points. Continue reading Draft changes to MAC zoning, 2/17/2019

My comments on the 2/11/2019 Town Council work session, 2/13/2019

Go to this page if you want to listen to an audio recording of the meeting.

Before I provide commentary, I should briefly describe what this meeting was about.

The first section of the meeting was a presentation on revising (what used to be called) the Vienna citizen’s guide to traffic calming.  This document lays out the process by which citizens can ask for traffic-calming measures on their streets.  For example, a change in speed limit, speed humps, caution signs, and similar.

The second section of the meeting was an introduction to the new “visual guidelines” for MAC buildings.  This was the part I was there to hear, and most of my comments focus on that.

The final section of the meeting was a discussion of the process by which the Town may accept “proffers” from builders.  This part of the session was motivated by the irregular manner in which the Town accepted a last-minute proffer from the developers of 444 Maple West (Tequila Grande) before passing that proposal.

Commentary follows. Continue reading My comments on the 2/11/2019 Town Council work session, 2/13/2019