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Legal issues, staff review could delay ‘ambitious’ rewrite of Reston’s comprehensive plan

The future Reston Town Center Metro station (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

A major rewrite of Reston’s central planning document — the Reston Comprehensive Plan — could take additional time for review due to pending legal issues and concerns flagged by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. 

At the board’s land use policy meeting last week, county staff noted that the update to the plan — which was led by a 31-member task force over the last two years — contains language that is at odds with some countywide policies. The county’s attorneys office is reviewing the draft, which was written by the task force, for legal issues.

The ongoing review is expected to delay the approval process — which previously docketed for Nov. 2 before the Fairfax County Planning Commission. 

Public comment on the plan is ongoing. The task force approved draft recommendations on Aug. 28 after 58 public meetings. Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn convened the task force after he took office in 2020.

While lauding the overall effort led by Alcorn and the community, some board members characterized the update as ambitious or overtly prescriptive.

Rather than broadly limiting, restricting or expanding development, the plan makes site-specific changes to a limited number of areas. It also includes specific chapters dedicated to equity and community health. 

The recommendations are intended to bring Reston — which is navigating the tension and opportunity of growth in transit-oriented areas and old development — into a new era.

“I am concerned that this may fail by its sheer weight,” Mason District Supervisor Gross said, observing that the draft appears to lean toward creating space for more William-Sonomas, a candle shop, than Dollar Stores.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said it’s important to recognize the plan is not the first in the county with a chapter dedicated to equity as a planning tool. The county’s One Fairfax racial and social equity policy, adopted in 2019, applies to the entire county.

“The last thing we want to do is confuse people that that’s not a standard,” McKay said.

Others questioned the decision to give the task force the authority to draft the plan instead of staff.

In a statement to FFXnow, Alcorn defended the approach, which he said is characteristic in community planning:

This is not new.  Ever since the scandals of the 1960s (note these were referenced recently in a Fairfax County Times article on Edwin Henderson II) Fairfax County has practiced community-based planning where community task forces have been “given the pen” to ensure the direction and vision of the comprehensive plan reflects the will of the community.  In my 16 years on the Fairfax County Planning Commission Mt. Vernon Commissioner and Planning Commission Vice-Chair John Beyers regularly referred to the comprehensive plan as “the people’s plan.”

This practice is noted in the 2011 Burnham Award from the American Planning Association when the Tysons plan was recognized as the best top comprehensive plan in the country.  As for the recent Reston process, it is also true that much of the task force recommendation was drafted by County staff – frankly to the disappointment of some task force members.  The task force recommendations include new proposed guidance on quality of life issues like equity and community health, and I look forward to continued community feedback and ultimately a recommendation from the planning commission that reflects the values that make Reston a special place.

Comparing the comprehensive plan amendment process to Seven Corners, Gross questioned why the task force led the writing when staff with professional expertise in policy writing and planning could have initiated the process with significant task-force and community input.

Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk encouraged staff and the board to use the “excellent” work by the task force as a foundation for the final update. 

“Let’s think about this as an opportunity to use this excellent work as a way to be a foundation for the future changes that we could make,” Lusk said.

Now, county staff are leading a comprehensive effort to review the document — which has already piqued several issues. 

Chris Caperton, deputy director of the county’s department of planning and development, said the plan includes “a lot of aspirational language” that appears to be “heavy-handed.”

McKay concluded that staff and board comments indicate that more time is needed for review. 

“I think what’s clear here is this is going to take a while,” he said.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity encouraged staff to iron out the legalities of what developers should, could and are simply encouraged to do in Reston. 

“The conflicts also make it more complicated for developers, ” Herrity said, adding that Reston is a critical economic corridor.

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