Letter to Board Subject of April 16 PDC Vote

The following letter, which has been reviewed by PDC’s Program and Policy Advisory Committee, will be submitted to PDC members for a vote at the April 16 meeting. If approved, the letter would be sent to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

For a full description of the April 16 meeting program, see this link. If you wish to propose changes to the letter, amendments will be entertained at the April 16 meeting. You also can submit written suggestions to contact@providencedistrictcouncil.org.

Draft Letter Regarding Fairfax Forward

Dear Chairman Bulova, Supervisor Smyth, and other members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors:

The Providence District Council is writing to request changes to Fairfax Forward before final passage. While the plan has many positives on which to build, a Feb. 20, 2013, staff report was disturbingly silent on several critical avenues of citizen and community involvement in reviewing land use proposals. Without amended language, to ensure full and meaningful community review, PDC fears that Fairfax Forward could be construed in a way that reduces, rather than expands, community involvement in charting Fairfax’s future.

In recent weeks, PDC and other community leaders have worked closely and constructively with the planning staff, who in turn have repeatedly expressed their commitment to a robust role for the community in land use planning. Some issues have been addressed in an April 3 staff addendum, and staff has expressed openness to considering other requested changes.

Assuming that the concerns identified in this letter are addressed, PDC believes that several core features of Fairfax Forward are highly commendable. These include the goal of including citizens at multiple levels of review, not just at one big Area Plan Review task force meeting; the opportunity to do iterative planning, in which proposals change in response to feedback; and the attempt to evaluate individual “spot replannings” in a broader planning context.

With the understanding that the details of Fairfax Forward may evolve in coming weeks, the PDC requests that the following points be explicitly addressed in the final written documentation of Fairfax Forward, so that the community knows its rights and powers in the new system, and so that Fairfax Forward will actively promote informed citizen engagement. It is our belief that these written guarantees could give Fairfax the best of all worlds: a planning process in which the broader community is assured a meaningful role, while also adding the benefits envisioned by Fairfax Forward.

Citizen and Community Involvement

1) Explicitly reinstate late-stage community review meetings to provide “back-end” review of all proposed Comprehensive Plan changes. Fairfax Forward goes to great length to create task forces at the early stages of replanning, which is one of the proposal’s greatest strengths. Experience shows, however, that participation in ongoing task forces frequently narrows to a few participants who may unintentionally stray from community values. The PDC strongly urges that all final proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan be subject to a “back-end” review by a broadly representative citizen body, such as the traditional Area Plans Review task force or a district land use committee. This would ensure that any new planning visions mesh with those of resident stakeholders. These community reviews were an enormous strength of the traditional APR process and gave the community a meaningful voice in its own future. Replacing this model with“focus groups,” as the Feb. 20 draft of Fairfax Forward appears to suggest, would be a major step backward.

2) Reinstate and clarify the right of the community to submit nominations for change. Under the new plan, such community proposals can be discarded by staff before reaching any community consideration. The PDC requests two remedies: a) That all proposals for planning changes, and their status, be posted prominently online. b) That residents who fail to gain staff approval for their replanning requests have some means of raising their proposal to a district land use community or community task force, so that residents’ perspective can be gauged.

3) Enhance community outreach. Fairfax Forward risks being empty, and could unintentionally omit the public, without far more effective methods of citizen and community outreach. We strongly urge that the staff, with the explicit encouragement of the Board of Supervisors, set up a community outreach working group that invites the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations, the district councils and other interested community players to devise specific ways to engage the public on an ongoing basis, and to ensure that all web material on Comprehensive Plan proposals be maximally transparent. Note: the Planning staff has issued an invitation for an initial meeting of community stakeholders, a move the PDC applauds.

4) Allow community organizations to choose their own representatives to task forces and land use study groups. This system, which has been at the heart of APR task forces, has greatly enhanced and broadened community representation, and bolstered broad public trust in final decisions.

Other Process Recommendations

5) Consider preserving the North-South County planning calendar, especially for proposals that affect suburban and low-density residential areas. At the March 27 Planning Commission hearing, commissioners expressed concerns that the lack of a clear calendar, and the fear that a specific area might go many years without getting on the work plan, could drive land holders to aggressively use the out-of-turn planning process. We support a suggestion by Commissioner Lawrence that, where possible, the traditional north-south calendar be preserved, at least for neighborhood-scale proposals, to guide all stakeholders, and give them an incentive to await their normal turn.

5) Create a broad notification process for proposals that affect multiple magisterial districts. Many Fairfax Forward reviews could cross multiple district lines. PDC urges that a notification process be instated, so that all potentially affected stakeholders will learn in a timely manner of proposed replannings, even if they fall on the other side of a district line.

6) Ensure that the early process of defining the work plan is slow enough to accommodate meaningful citizen participation. Note: The timetable has been changed since the Feb. 20 staff report. PDC supports the new, slower timetable for defining the work plan.

7) Specify that broad impact analyses, on traffic and other basic services such as schools and parks, are included in reviews. This seems strongly implicit in Fairfax Forward, and is potentially one of its greatest strengths. But PDC believes that a commitment to make this data available during the review process should be strongly and explicitly stated.

8) Include a strong statement of support for preserving the stability of suburban neighborhoods and low-density residential area. For average citizens, waging a land –use battle against paid development professionals is draining and potentially intimidating. There is a sense that opening the door to continuous replanning proposals, whatever the specific outcomes in a given year, by itself undermines the stability of neighborhoods and citizens’ quality of life. PDC recommends including language, perhaps from “Concepts for Future Development,” to assure the public that Fairfax Forward will not open the door to disruptive, open-ended replanning proposals that do not conform with the Comprehensive Plan’s goals.

9) Mandate a two-year Planning Commission review of any new process and include citizens as part of that oversight process. It is clear that Fairfax Forward will be a work in progress for some time, and will need to adjust as experience is gained. The PDC strongly endorses a suggestion by Commissioner Lawrence at the March 27 hearing to mandate a two-year review of any new land use process. Further, we request that any Planning Commission review process include citizen participants. This model, in which interested citizens support a Planning Commission task force, was highly effective in formulating Fairfax County’s Residential Development Criteria and Transit-Oriented Development policy.

Summary

Land use is a unique area of government endeavor. It therefore requires more, not less, active citizen oversight at all stages. In a March 17, 2010, letter, then-Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn, later named citizen of the year by the Fairfax Federation, noted that Comprehensive Plan changes are “a one-way street. Once site-specific density goes into the Comprehensive Plan we expect them to be in the Comp Plan in perpetuity.”

Unlike a tax increase, for instance, a Comprehensive Plan change is difficult in the extreme to reverse. For this reason, the Board, in enacting Fairfax Forward, should view any diminished role of the community with the utmost caution, and take steps to ensure that this does not happen.

In our discussions with the planning staff, PDC has been assured that a central goal is to increase community involvement. We believe our suggestions are consistent with this goal, and that explicit inclusion of these measures is indeed necessary to ensure that the Comprehensive Plan continues to reflect the shared discussion of all stakeholders, including the citizens who have made Fairfax County their homes, and one of the greatest communities to be found anywhere.

We thank you for your consideration, and are happy to help in anyway to make a revised Fairfax Forward an exemplary model for community-based planning.

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