The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved amendments to the zoning ordinance that were mandated by a state law authored by Del. Dave Albo (R-Springfield).
It will allow cluster development "by right" in areas zoned R2, R3 and R4 in Fairfax County. Those areas allow a density of two, three or four houses per acre, respectively.
But, after the Great Falls Citizens Association objected to a change that would allow cluster development "by right" in areas that are zoned R1, or one house per acre, Fairfax County staff removed those areas from the amended ordinance.
"I have seen a lot of abuse of cluster zoning in Great Falls," said Great Falls resident Norma Baker. She cited an incident where a developer applied for a cluster development on Georgetown Pike but built houses on half-acre lots "so only the wetlands was left, and you can't use that for parkland.
"Zoning is a kind of trust between the citizens and the legislature. You are, with things like cluster [development], essentially modifying that," Baker said.
Baker said she is concerned about a site plan for construction of a subdivision at a former horse farm on Georgetown Pike west of Springvale Road that is now going through the county process for approvals.
"The Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) weighed in heavily on this," said Dranesville Supervisor Joan DuBois (R) from the dais on Monday. "It is due in large measure to them that the R1 district [remains] as a special exception."
So will the RE, or one house per each two- to five-acre lot, zoning district, which includes the former horse farm, according to Baker.
DuBois made a motion, approved by the board, that will allow developers to rezone property from conventional R1 zoning to "planned development housing," which allows a density bonus in exchange for builder concessions such as private streets and smaller lot sizes.
Karen Harwood of the Fairfax County attorney's office said developers file many more applications for planned developments than for clusters.
"We only have about six [cluster] applications a year," she said. "The P districts are the majority."
"We see cluster being used to maximize density," said Becky Cate of Vienna.
"A Fairfax [County] delegate and the Fairfax Board [of Supervisors] were at odds" on the issue of cluster zoning," said Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-at large), "and we did not prevail."
To build a cluster development in areas zoned R1 or RE, one house per each two- to five-acre lot, or RC, conservation districts such as the Occoquan watershed, builders will still have to go before both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors for a special exception.
Each panel requires a public hearing, forcing proposals to take a measured pace before they can be approved.
The process of obtaining a special exception can be time-consuming and expensive, say builders, often serving as a disincentive to builders who are motivated by profit.
"We have been strongly opposed [to cluster developments] in the past," said John Ulfelder, chairman of planning and zoning for the Great Falls Citizens Association. "Large lots are more in keeping with the semirural character" of Great Falls.
"With the disappearance of most of our farmland, people see the benefits of open space and vistas, but we have wariness of losing the benefits of the public hearing process," Ulfelder said.
West of Walker Road in Great Falls, most residentially zoned land is not served by a public sewer system but depends on septic systems. "We are concerned about the continued impact of septic fields," Ulfelder said.
The continued requirement of public hearings under the process required for special exceptions would "provide protection for the water supply" and encourage more open space, he said.
That, in turn, encourages people "using their feet, their horses, their bikes or whatever" to get around.
Cluster zoning, he said, might also reduce scenic vistas in Great Falls, where developers might be tempted to concentrate open space away from public view in the rear of a subdivision, causing the houses to be crowded closer to the streets.
"Draconian is a strong word, but developers see these as very, very difficult," Ulfelder said.
Peter Rigby of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association told planning commissioners that the proposal would create "an unworkable process" that is too onerous for builders.
But at Monday's board hearing, Dana Kaufman (D-Lee) told Rigby he was "surprised by the testimony from NVBIA, given the prominent role NVBIA played in getting us in this box to begin with."
Albo proposed legislation passed by the General Assembly that required Fairfax County to amend its zoning ordinance by July 1.
Areas zoned R1, RE (residential estate) and RC (residential conservation) will remain distinct from cluster zoning other than by special exception.
That suits David Schnare, who spoke in defense of the Occoquan watershed. "What we would like is no change in what we have," he said.