Overhaul of county zoning ordinance approved again, despite opposition

In front of the Fairfax County Government Center (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax County’s zoning ordinance has officially been modernized — for good this time.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the code overhaul known as zMod on Tuesday (May 9) even after overwhelming opposition at the public hearing. The readoption took effect immediately.

Tuesday’s proceedings echoed the board’s consideration of the same plan in 2021 — a vote that the Virginia Supreme Court voided in March. The court ruled that the approval violated open meeting provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act because it came during a virtual meeting.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said the modernization of the ordinance — which was last updated in 1979 — was long overdue and corrected parts of the document that were discriminatory. McKay said issues that triggered a response in the community will remain on the county’s radar.

“We will continue to monitor those as we have been,” he said.

The board approved a follow-on motion to allow additional opportunity for review at a Fairfax County Planning Commission work session in June — particularly for concerns about allowances for data centers in some areas of the county.

McKay noted earlier in the meeting that zMOD limited where data centers are allowed, banning them from residential districts, but the county has approved nine data centers since the overhaul was first adopted.

Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith said the planning commission will revisit issues raised at Tuesday’s public hearing as part of a zoning ordinance work program.

Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust conceded that, while the ordinance was not perfect, it should still go through.

“It’s without hesitation that I support adoption,” he said.

Concerns dominating the hearing — losing stable neighborhoods, lack of transparency, detrimental environmental impacts, doubts about county staff’s intentions, and the scope of the overhaul — were similar to criticisms made in 2021.

Some residents revived arguments that eased rules for accessory living units (ALUs) and home-based businesses (HBBs) would destroy the character of stable neighborhoods.

Others said the latest push for zMod was ushered in without transparency and public comment.

Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said staff “should be celebrated, not castigated” for its work on the zoning revisions, a process that began in 2017.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity abstained from the vote.

“It was supposed to be a reorganization,” Herrity said. “It ended up being more than that.”

County resident Adrienne Whyte argued that the “poorly created ordinance” doesn’t consider the impact of development on the environment.

“Our only saving grace is that this is an election year,” Whyte said.

Jeff Parnes, a representative of the Fairfax National Estates Homeowners Association, took issue with the data center and ALU provisions as well as the expanded use of administrative permits that don’t require public notice or hearings.

“The devil is in the details,” Parnes said.

A minority of individuals testified in support of the plan, which was in place for about two years before the state supreme court struck it down.

Scott Adams, a representative of the National Association for Industrial and Office Parks, said the uncertainty created by the Supreme Court’s ruling has impacted the county’s reputation.

“Through no fault of the county’s, the Supreme Court decision has truly created uncertainty in the zoning process,” he said.

Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk said the uncertainty has left some applications in limbo.

“We’ve had a number of individuals come forward to make a decision to invest in this community, and they had approvals that gave them the ability to do that,” Lusk said. “Those approvals are in jeopardy because of this decision.”

Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn, who voted against the proposal in 2021, emphasized that some concerns about the policy — including his — were overstated. The changes to ALUs and HBBs were “modest” but require careful monitoring, he said.

“Frankly, the implementation has surprised me. It’s actually gone better than I expected,” Alcorn said.

In response to a request by Reston Association, the commission will reconsider the parameters for when a Planned Residential Community (PRC) plan is required. RA nixed plans for lighting at Barton Hills tennis court after losing an appeal to the county, which argued that a PRC plan — a costly and time-consuming effort — was needed.

Smith reminded the audience that land use is continually evolving. Just as amendments were made to the 1970s version of the document, opportunities may arise for additional changes.