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Vienna’s revised zoning code gets planning commission support, but parking concerns loom

The Danor Plaza parking lot in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Vienna’s proposed new zoning code got a critical vote of confidence last week.

At its meeting on Wednesday (Aug. 23), the Vienna Planning Commission unanimously approved a letter to the town council recommending that it adopt the latest draft of a document three years in the making, one that will guide everything from development on Maple Avenue to the amount of space a backyard deck can occupy for the foreseeable future.

“I really appreciate all the work that everyone has put into reviewing this over the last year, and staff cannot be thanked enough for the immense lift,” Planning Commission Chair Jessica Plowgian said after more than three hours of discussion. “…We would not have done any of this without all of your efforts.”

The commission’s support did come with a number of caveats, as members identified issues in the 323-page draft that they feel should be reviewed either before or shortly after the council votes on Oct. 23.

One of the biggest unresolved questions is how the town will handle parking, which has long been a challenge for residents, visitors and business owners. With a separate study of parking supply and demand already underway, the draft code makes “minimal changes” to the existing requirements, the planning commission noted in its Aug. 24 letter to the town council.

“Parking is a significant concern for [the] Planning Commissioners,” the letter said. “…Planning Commissioners requested that parking requirements be reevaluated and Chapter 18 [of the town code] be amended as soon as possible after completion of the parking study.”

The commission also suggested that the town further evaluate comments from community members on outdoor lighting standards for residential and commercial properties as well as signs, potentially by hiring a consultant.

On some sections, the commission offered more specific critiques, suggesting, for instance, that driveways for single-family houses have at least a 5-foot radius.

Several commissioners questioned whether a 30% open space requirement is sufficient for multifamily residential uses, though two were “neutral” on the issue and one thought that standard seems adequate.

The commission was also split on whether to remove an eight-seat limit on temporary outdoor dining areas that are within 60 to 75 feet of a residential property. Part of an ordinance adopted in May 2022 to allow more flexibility for outdoor dining, the cap prohibited a patio for two Church Street restaurants that had drawn noise complaints.

One of those restaurants, Blend 111, closed permanently on Aug. 12.

While a majority of planning commissioners supported removing the seating limit, two members “raised concerns about an increase in the number of tables resulting in noise complaints,” according to the letter.

A section addressing ground-floor uses in residential or mixed-use buildings provoked a strong reaction. The current draft says only that a “lobby and similar areas which serve upper-story residential uses may be located on the ground floor but may not occupy the entire ground floor.”

“That’s wholly inadequate in my view,” Commissioner Matthew Glassman said.

To ensure mixed-use residential buildings provide “meaningful commercial space open to the public on the ground floor,” the commission recommended that more than half of the ground floor be dedicated to non-residential uses and the remaining space can be used for a lobby or other amenities for residents.

Some commissioners proposed going even further and requiring 75% of the ground floor be non-residential uses.

“There does seem to be pretty strong support for this particular issue, that everybody wants at least this change, if not a stronger change to what’s there,” Plowgian said.

The Vienna Town Council will review the planning commission’s recommendations, along with almost 700 pages of public comments, during its 8 p.m. meeting tonight (Monday).

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