Disappearing Open Space: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow


(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

Property owners often take for granted that the open spaces and trees surrounding their homes will always be there. What many of us don’t realize is that if the trees are on private land, then the owner of that land—armed with approved plans and permits in accordance with County ordinances—is within his or her rights to cut down the trees and put structures in their place.

As land values skyrocket in Fairfax County, the cost of engineering even the most difficult of areas becomes worth the price when compared with the eventual profit reaped from building on those areas. Land that sat vacant for years has suddenly become hot property.

Like it or not, we have to expect that eventually, whether it’s tomorrow or 20 years from now, every vacant lot will be developed as allowed in the County’s Comprehensive Plan.

What is the Comprehensive Plan?

The Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan is an evolving document used by the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission, County staff, and the public to guide decisions about the built and natural environment, as well as the conservation of cultural and heritage resources.

The Plan recommends how land should be used, but not when development will occur. Consequently, as years pass and land goes untouched, we get lulled into thinking that the current land use won’t change. But someday it will.

Land in Fairfax County is zoned according to its use. The Zoning Ordinance is part of the County Code and regulates the type, scale, and intensity of development that may occur in the specific zoning districts. For instance, land that may be developed with some type of housing is zoned residential. Land that may be developed as offices, banks, stores, and shopping malls is zoned commercial.

To fully understand how a parcel of land can be used, you first need to know how the land is planned in the Comprehensive Plan. Only then should you look at how the land is zoned.

Changing the zoning for a parcel requires a rezoning application. Such applications are subject to approval or denial by the Board of Supervisors and are evaluated based on conformance with the Comprehensive Plan. For example, if the landowner has a parcel zoned for one house per acre but the Comprehensive Plan recommends between three and four houses per acre, it is likely that the application to rezone the property within that density range will be approved.

Changing the Comprehensive Plan for a parcel of land is a different process, requiring extensive study and recommendations by County staff and the Planning Commission. Only the Board of Supervisors can approve Plan amendments.

To learn what is planned for a particular property or area in the County, contact the County Planning Division’s Planner-of-the-Day at 703-324-1380, TTY 711. Or visit the 7th floor of the Herrity Building, 12055 Government Center Parkway, in Fairfax, between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays. No appointment is needed.

The Comprehensive Plan is available for reference purposes in the Virginia Room of the City of Fairfax Regional Library and at the office of each member of the Board of Supervisors. You may purchase a copy from the Department of Planning and Zoning, Herrity Building, 12055 Government Center Parkway, Suite 730, Fairfax, VA  22035. The phone number is 703-324-1380, TTY 711.


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