zMod Launches: Modernization of Fairfax County’s Zoning Ordinance


March 29, 2017

News Highlights

  • zMod will make the county’s zoning ordinance more agile, flexible and forward thinking.
  • The project in its first phase will prioritize three key ordinance amendments for review: minor modifications, planned development housing districts and creating broader, more general zoning categories.
  • zMod supports the county’s strategic plan to grow and diversify the economy.

Fairfax County launched a major initiative to modernize its zoning ordinance that was first established 40 years ago. Dubbed “zMod,” the effort will help the county carry out its strategic plan to grow and diversify its economy.

The modernization plan was presented on Tuesday, March 28, at the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ Development Process Committee.

“We want to be sure that our ordinance is forward thinking in terms of being able to accommodate uses that we don’t know about today that will be here in the future,” said Barbara Byron, director of the Office of Community Revitalization, who will lead the project.

zmod will work in tandem with the county’s existing process for amending its zoning laws by prioritizing proposed changes of county-wide significance. The first phase focuses on three key areas:

  • Prioritizing key zoning ordinance amendments for updates.
  • Reformatting and restructuring the ordinance to make it more user friendly, such as including more charts, tables and links.
  • Improving the county’s overall process for how the zoning ordinance is updated.

Three amendments will be prioritized:

  • Updating minor modification provisions to make them more flexible, allowing the county to more efficiently approve minor changes to proffers and development conditions.
  • Updating the regulations for planned development housing districts.
  • Reviewing use definitions to create more generic categories to accommodate current, emerging and future uses, like makerspaces, urban farming, and live-work units.

Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance Modernization Project from Fairfax County

The minor modification process would be streamlined, to better react to changing needs or market conditions. These minor changes include things like permitting a new use, like a makerspace, in an existing shopping center.

Specifically, the county proposes three changes. First, it would expand the circumstances in which these changes may be approved administratively. Secondly, for issues that warrant Board consideration but do not rise to the occasion of requiring a public hearing, the county executive could bring items to the board to approve as part of the Board’s meeting agenda. Finally, the county would create a process whereby single issue changes like changing a building’s height would be brought forward for public hearing with a tightly focused review and in an expedited timeframe.

As a second priority, the county’s planners intend to overhaul the planned development housing zoning districts. These districts created in the 1980s were intended for larger housing subdivisions in greenfields. In recent years, however, this zoning category has been used for smaller, infill developments. Among other things, this has created long-term issues for homeowners when restrictions are placed on how they can use their yards and maintenance issues when a limited number of homes can include the responsibility to own and maintain features like retaining walls, athletic facilities and roads.

Finally, officials want to create more general zoning use categories that combine uses of similar impact into broad categories for consistency and ease of understanding and implementation. This shift will permit for greater agility, so the county won’t need to make zoning updates to accommodate specific new uses.

Byron pointed to restaurants as an example. The county would establish a general category to combine the three categories of similar uses currently contained in the zoning ordinance today and to keep pace with changing trends in the industry, such as fast casual restaurants.

County planners have already conceptualized possible categories, but the county would like to begin with restaurants as a test case. This also will yield economic benefits since restaurants are the fastest growing segment of the retail economy, Byron said.

To help implement zMod, the county plans to hire consultant services, and the county executive’s proposed FY 18 budget includes two new staff positions to work on the project.

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