Reimagining Planning and Zoning in Reston

How can we have a voice in Reston's redevelopment? By reinventing a Reston institution: the Planning and Zoning Committee. Find out how we can bring P&Z back to the future to benefit Reston.

Recently, I met with my fellow leaders from Reston Association and ARCH, as we continue to work together on Reston-related matters.  One of the issues we discussed was the 23-story office tower, a project all three of our organizations opposed.  We noted how difficult it is to stop a project like this once it reaches the Board of Supervisors, and we agreed that we need a way to influence the process earlier on.

We also discussed the development in the Reston Center for Industry and Government (RCIG), along the Dulles Toll Road.  Currently, the RCIG is not subject to architectural review.  We discussed having those properties become subject to RA’s Design Review Board.  But RA President Ken Knueven laid out the difficulties: RA will need to negotiate with each individual landowner, which would take a while, and the landowners will need to be persuaded that they will benefit from the arrangement.  With Metro-related development just around the corner, we might need another short-term solution.

The good news is that both problems could have a common solution: rethinking the Reston Planning and Zoning Committee.  Like the Reston Festival, which I discussed back in July, the P&Z Committee is a venerable Reston institution that could use an update to fit the needs of our community today. With a few tweaks, the P&Z Committee could serve as the voice for citizen input on planning and development in Reston, which would benefit Restonians and developers alike.

Let’s begin with the history.  Like the Reston Festival, the P&Z Committee was part of RCA originally.  RCA was founded to ensure that Bob Simon’s founding goals were maintained after Bob was replaced as developer in 1968.  The P&Z Committee was a key piece of that; it reviewed each new development proposal and ensured that development adhered to the Reston plan and vision.  P&Z provided an opportunity for citizen input that didn’t exist in other communities, and it ensured that Reston would maintain its unique character, and would not become a generic suburb, just another anonymous piece of Fairfax County.

Over the years, the P&Z Committee remained an independent and vigorous voice for Reston.  In the early days, the committee raised concerns about the safety and traffic impacts of new development.  The committee fought to ensure that the Fairfax County Parkway was not routed along Reston Parkway.  (Can you imagine how bad traffic would have been if that had happened?)  I remember the committee’s ongoing battle to bring the original Spectrum development in line with Reston’s vision.  The P&Z Committee earned high regard from County planning staff, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors for its knowledge and commitment to the community. 

Unforunately, in recent years, the Committee’s sense of its own mission seems to have shrunk.  (The Committee broke away from RCA in 2004.)  The 23-story office tower is a perfect example of this.  The P&Z Committee voted to approve the project.  What argument carried the day?  That the developer had a legal right to build what was proposed, and therefore, the committee couldn’t say no.

This is not a slam on the Committee members; everyone I’ve met there is smart, conscientious, and hard-working.  But the P&Z Committee was not created to rule on whether proposed developments are legal.  The County has plenty of smart people on staff who can comment on the legality of proposed development.  What the County doesn’t have is a ground-level, citizen’s-eye view of Reston’s principles and our vision for our community.  That’s where the P&Z Committee can really help both Reston and Fairfax County.

I’d like to see the P&Z Committee restored to its former scope and mission.  I’d like to see the Committee scrutinize each development in Reston, and determine whether or not it is in keeping with our founding principles and the community we’ve built.  I’d like to see them work with developers to bring the projects in line with our vision of Reston.

We should review how members are appointed to the Committee, to ensure that all segments of the community are properly represented.  A couple years ago, former RCA President Marion Stillson spearheaded the creation of a Selection Committee, so that P&Z members are chosen by representatives from RCA, RA, the Reston Town Center Association, the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, and the Committee itself.  Previously, the Committee selected its own members.  I believe the current process is an improvement, but I’d be open to modifying or expanding the Selection Committee so that everyone is represented.

In keeping with the Committee’s expanded mission, I’d like to see it review every project in Reston.  And ideally, I’d like to see it be the one-stop shop for Reston citizens to weigh in on development proposals.  Currently, developers have to navigate a maze of advisory groups, depending on where the project is located.  If the project is in RA territory, the proposal needs to go through the Design Review Board.  If it’s in the Town Center, there’s a separate process there.  The RCIG used to have its own Architectural Review Board.  If we could centralize the reviews in the P&Z Committee, it would save developers time and effort.  And it would allow us citizens to speak with one voice for our community.

How can we make this happen?  Ultimately, I think Supervisor Hudgins would need to take the lead, to coordinate across different organizations with different prerogatives.  This would be a great opportunity for her to demonstrate that she values citizen input in the development process, and that she understands the ramifications of development to Reston’s vision.  It would be great if she endowed the P&Z Committee with real authority as well, but the Committee has achieved much over the years with only advisory power, so that could still work today.

The development proposals that are coming in the next few years will reshape Reston dramatically.  We need a strong citizen voice to ensure that the development doesn’t destroy those qualities that make Reston special.  A Reston Planning and Zoning Committee with broad scope and a broad sense of mission would ensure that Restonians are well represented in discussions about our future.

Now, I’d like to hear from you.  Do you have any thoughts on how the P&Z Committee could be reinvented?  Do you have a different idea for how Reston’s citizens can have a voice in the development process?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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John Farrell October 25, 2012 at 03:45 AM
In every other part of Fairfax that have HOAs, this function is performed by the HOA. Why should Reston be any different?
Colin Mills October 25, 2012 at 02:37 PM
Good to hear from you, Jim. I don't share your cynicism about Supervisor Hudgins and our other elected leaders. Even if I did, however, I'd point out that these are the leaders we here. Supervisor Hudgins will be in office until at least 2015. Systemic change of the sort you describe would take years, if not decades. Which does not mean that getting more local control of development is a bad idea, but these proposals will be coming through sooner than that. We need a solution that we can implement sooner. And I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Is my solution the perfect answer? No. But it's a step in the right direction.
Colin Mills October 25, 2012 at 02:44 PM
Thanks for your question, John. To answer your question, Reston should be different because we historically have been different. Most other communities in the County don't have a Master Plan like ours, and we should have a stake in ensuring that vision continues to guide us. I don't want Reston to wind up looking like every other suburb in Fairfax County. HOA-based review boards tend to focus only on design and architecture issues (as does RA's DRB). These issues are important, but the P&Z Committee has historically looked at larger questions, such as traffic impacts and the overall plan for our community. When we review new development, we need to ask more questions than whether they're painting it the right shade of brown.
The Convict October 25, 2012 at 03:26 PM
This is all pointless. P & Z is the province of Fairfax County. Until we become a municipality, our fates will always be decided by the "Down County" folks.
John Lovaas October 25, 2012 at 03:28 PM
Finally! It was a disaster in the making when RCA and P & Z went there separate ways a few years ago. As Colin points out, the P & Z have not been as effective, or even relevant, a voice as they had been when they had an institutional base in the Citizens Association which is where such a genuine community voice belongs. I believe it is in fact a function of other citizens associations, not HOAs. When they separated, P & Z had to go hat in hand to the Supervisor to in effect get her agreement to let them be involved in the landuse planning process at all. It might have been better if they had instead become a part of the Reston Association, but it still would have meant less than the effective autonomy they need to represent the community. Since the change, P & Z has become pretty to a lap dog of the Supervisor's office. That is not the way it should be under this Supervisor, her predecessor or any Supervisor to come. Colin's analysis is right in part--the function of a community P & Z review body is to assess what is consistent with the community's goals (founding principles in Reston's case), not just what someone determines to be consistent with the letter of the law--especially if that someone is a politician receiving money from those who profit from outcomes, for example. Many P & Z decisions since the separation have not been consistent with the community's best interests. That is clear. History shows P&Z belongs where it was successful--with RCA.


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