The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is ready to revisit its vision for Reston, voting on Jan. 14 to authorize the first major amendment to the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan for Reston since 2015.
Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn, whose district encompasses Reston, proposed the comprehensive plan review as his first board matter since being elected in November to succeed Cathy Hudgins, who retired at the end of 2019 after five terms on the Board of Supervisors.
With the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line and other major developments poised to transform Reston, the comprehensive plan amendment process will give residents an opportunity to discuss issues like housing, land use, and transportation that are critical to the future of their community.
“It has been five years since the current Comprehensive Plan for Reston was adopted,” Alcorn said. “The time is right to review key elements of that plan, including the balance of existing and planned development, infrastructure and the environment across all of Reston.”
A former Fairfax County planning commissioner, Alcorn says managing growth is one of his top priorities as supervisor, along with addressing climate change, improving pedestrian safety, and increasing the availability of affordable housing.
While the Board of Supervisors has approved more than 30 re-zonings to accommodate millions of square feet of new development in Reston’s transit station areas, the Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance is limited in its capacity to manage population growth and infrastructure, according to Alcorn.
Fairfax County is required by Virginia law to have a comprehensive plan that serves as a guide for making decisions about land use, development, transportation, and the county’s overall built and natural environment.
Reston is governed by a master plan initially adopted in July 1962 that guides development with different locations designated for residential, recreational, and civic uses around an employment center. Aside from some industrial and commercial areas along the Dulles Toll Road, Reston is zoned as a planned residential community district, which uses population density to dictate size and character.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted the Reston comprehensive plan on Feb. 11, 2014, establishing three transit station areas to encourage transit-oriented development around Reston’s planned Silver Line Metrorail stations.
Situated in the median of the Dulles Airport Access Highway/Dulles Toll Road, Metro’s Wiehle-Reston East station opened on July 26, 2014 along with the rest of the Silver Line’s first phase. The Reston Town Center and Herndon stations are part of the second phase, which is tentatively expected to be completed this summer.
The Board of Supervisors then adopted a second Reston Comprehensive Plan amendment on June 2, 2015 to align its recommendations with the existing development in Reston.
The need to reexamine Reston’s comprehensive plan has become increasingly apparent in recent years as the area becomes more populous and urbanized, leading to tensions between developers and residents concerned about how that growth will affect their neighborhoods, schools, and the overall community.
A proposed zoning amendment that would have increased the PRC district’s density limit from 13 people per acre to 15 or 16 people per acre and allowed residential developers to build up to 70 dwelling units per acre in Reston’s transit station areas inspired opposition from citizens after it was introduced in 2017.
Fairfax County had last revised the factors used to calculate the district’s density limits in 2007. At that time, county staff said a zoning amendment would be needed to accommodate the growth that was anticipated for Reston in the future.
Critics of the proposed amendment raised concerns about its potential impact on infrastructure, schools, and local golf courses. They argued that updating the Reston Master Plan instead would eliminate the need to raise the PRC density caps.
At Hudgins’s request, the Board of Supervisors ultimately agreed to shelve the proposed zoning ordinance amendment on Mar. 5, 2019.
Alcorn says the debate about population density thresholds is partly what prompted him to make amending the Reston comprehensive plan a priority.
“We need to have the discussion in Reston about how much population do we want? What kind of infrastructure do we want to make sure we have?” Alcorn said. “…That zoning ordinance is no longer sufficient to manage the balance of population and infrastructure going forward. It’s just not sufficient, so the comprehensive plan is the tool that we have available that can do that.”
In addition to looking at Reston’s projected population thresholds to ensure they are balanced with infrastructure and environmental needs, the comprehensive plan amendment authorized by the Board of Supervisors will examine land use in the Hunters Woods, South Lakes, and North Point village centers.
Other considerations include encouraging environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, establishing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure for accessing the Metro Silver Line stations, ensuring existing transportation improvements align with planned development, and balancing mobility and development in transit station areas with stability for nearby neighborhoods.
Alcorn also hopes to find ways to amend the comprehensive plan to better support affordable housing, both in terms of preserving existing communities and expanding the availability of new units.
Pledging to make affordable housing initiatives a priority, Alcorn says that one of his goals is to reform Fairfax County’s land use policies to support more affordable housing.
He also suggests that the county increase efforts to bring mixed-income and affordable housing to publicly owned land and establish a process for developers to convert underutilized office parks and commercial centers into residential or mixed-use communities in exchange for more substantial commitments to affordable housing.
“I want to see us get not just dozens and maybe small hundreds of units. I’m thinking thousands of units,” Alcorn said. “So, to do that, we really have to look at more systemic changes in terms of our policies.”
However, the Hunter Mill District supervisor stops short of endorsing the statewide upzoning bill currently being considered by the Virginia General Assembly.
Introduced by Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-86th), H.B. 152 would require localities to permit the development of two-family residential units, such as duplexes and townhouses, on lots zoned for single-family residential use.
“I oppose all efforts by the General Assembly to restrict localities’ ability to do land use,” Alcorn said.
One issue that the Reston comprehensive plan amendment will definitively not touch is Reston’s golf courses, which have become a rallying point for residents seeking to preserve open space from development.
The Reston National Golf Course and Hidden Creek Country Club golf course sites are both designated as golf courses in the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan, but that has not stopped them from attracting the interest of developers.
Hidden Creek Country Club owner Wheelock Communities presented a plan to turn the club’s golf course into a public park with up to 1,000 residential units to the Reston Association in September 2018, and Reston National was sold to a pair of developers last May, stirring up fears about its future despite the new owners stating that they had no set plans for the property.
Golf course preservation became a major topic of discussion during last year’s Hunter Mill District supervisor race, which saw Alcorn beat four other candidates to win the Democratic nomination in a June primary.
Alcorn says he has already let the Hidden Creek owners know that the golf course will not be considered during the Reston comprehensive plan review.
The review will, however, open up discussions about private ownership and management of open space in Reston and the ownership monopoly at Reston Town Center, which is privately owned and managed by Boston Properties.
Private open space has benefits in that it takes the burden and cost of maintenance off of public entities, but it can also be restrictive in terms of what activities are allowed on those properties.
Alcorn argues that Reston Town Center might not have switched to paid parking under more diverse ownership, but because it controls all publicly available parking at the center, Boston Properties was able to unilaterally institute the new system in 2017.
Boston Properties did not return the Fairfax County Times’ request for comment by press time.
“We’re in this period where we have, in effect, outsourced many…traditional local government functions to associations,” Alcorn said. “…There are many benefits that come with that, but I think what we’re starting to bump into is some limitations and some areas that we need to have a public discussion.”