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Peter’s Take: Reform Community Benefits as Site Plan Conditions

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

This is the first of two columns.

Today, I’ll discuss some of Arlington County’s self-imposed limitations on site plan conditions for “community benefits.” These are benefits that Arlington receives in exchange for granting developers additional density and other zoning changes.

Next week, I’ll recommend appropriate planning and policy reforms.

Discussion

Arlington lists the County’s standard site plan conditions, noting that they are designed to:

Ameliorate a project’s impacts on surrounding property, as well as any additional height and/or density or other bonuses that may be approved or modifications to Zoning Ordinance standards proposed by a developer… Increased density, height or other modifications can have an impact on the surrounding community and site plan conditions help to mitigate these impacts.

Arlington’s administrative regulation also enumerates (pp. 63-64) “standard site plan conditions” that are “typically necessary,” while acknowledging that other conditions (not enumerated) might be appropriate for individual projects.

The County’s community benefits’ conditions have failed to adequately address the impact of development

Increased student enrollments and crowded parks are two important impacts of many development projects. There is no state law or County ordinance that prohibits the County from requesting a reasonable cash or in-kind contribution from a developer as a condition to address these particular kinds of impacts on schools or parks. Yet, the County has:

  • failed entirely to request cash or in-kind schools’ contribution conditions, and
  • asked only occasionally for contribution conditions relating to parkland and open space.

Efforts to discuss development’s impact have been hamstrung by lack of awareness of other jurisdictions that routinely assess those impacts (including on schools and parks), and perform related cost/benefit analyses. George Rovder, a Bluemont Civic Association past President, provided me with this first-person account of what transpired during the course of the Site Plan Review Committee’s (SPRC) recent consideration of site plan conditions for 491 new housing units to be constructed on the former Mazda Ballston site:

The applicant (developer) stated how much more tax revenue the proposed project would bring in vs. the amount currently being collected (from the Mazda dealership and the small strip of retail stores), stressing that this increased tax revenue was a key reason the community should support the project. I asked that the applicant or staff also provide figures for the costs associated with schools and other community services and infrastructure. I was advised by the SPRC Chair that there “are no costs” associated with these projects, as we already have water and sewer and the like in place. The Chair further observed that neither staff nor the applicant could possibly calculate the infrastructure and community services costs associated with the project.

The County has further failed to adequately track, monitor and enforce community benefits’ conditions

Citizens, the Arlington County Civic Federation, and at least one County commission have complained about County staff’s failure to track, monitor and enforce community benefits’ conditions.

Their strong complaints led Arlington’s independent auditor to place this issue at the top of the independent audit priority list. However, the Board’s new independent auditor has since resigned, leaving this audit in limbo.

Conclusion

Properly reformed and enforced, community benefits’ conditions included in site plans can materially improve the fiscal and functional sustainability of new development. Next week, I’ll propose planning and policy reforms needed to better fulfill those goals.

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