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Peter’s Take: Is Arlington Ready for a Major Flood?

Peter RousselotPeter’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.

In 1972, the eye of Hurricane Agnes passed directly over the DC metropolitan area. Agnes caused major flooding in Arlington, collapsing the Walter Reed Bridge, and severely damaging the rest of the Four Mile Run watershed. The Four Mile Run watershed is particularly flood prone — even in storms far less severe than Agnes.

Discussion

Email exchanges between an environmental activist and County staff raise serious doubts as to whether Arlington has planned adequately for a major flooding event — even though flooding has been identified as one of Arlington’s most significant hazards.

At its December 10 meeting, the County Board is scheduled to vote on County staff’s proposal to amend Arlington’s Zoning Ordinance for all S-3A zoning districts, which include public parkland and sites owned by Arlington Public Schools (APS). The amendments effectively remove the maximum height restrictions and minimum setback requirements for all new school buildings — whether they are built on APS-owned property or on public parkland. Staff also has requested to apply these changes to all uses (not just school building uses) in all S-3A districts.

Arlington environmental activist Suzanne Sundburg has:

  • asked the Board to delay final adoption of these sweeping changes to enable more careful consideration,
  • provided examples of environmental zoning protections adopted by other Virginia jurisdictions that Arlington should consider adopting,
  • posed a series of questions to County staff regarding the cumulative impact such changes might have on storm water run-off, and
  • asked the County to identify which staff member(s) have the final responsibility for comprehensive risk assessment and deciding whether the flood hazard and risk exposure are worth assuming.

Several Virginia jurisdictions have developed zoning solutions to help better protect their natural resources. Fairfax County has a zoning overlay for environmentally sensitive areas in its zoning ordinance. See Article 7, Part 3.

Likewise, Virginia Beach created a separate zoning category or district called a “P-1 Preservation District” in the city’s zoning ordinance to protect environmentally sensitive areas. Its goals include protection of its lands and waters from pollution, impairment or destruction. Critical areas of special concern include parklands, wilderness areas, open spaces, floodplains, floodways, watersheds and water supplies.

Arlington should adopt a comparable environmental protection ordinance before (or concurrently to) adopting changes to zoning in S-3A zoning districts in order to minimize the expansion of impervious and semi-pervious surfaces in or near sensitive watersheds and flood-prone areas.

Arlington’s storm-water management webpage summarizes its goals, but it appears that Arlington lacks an adequate plan to reduce or mitigate major flood risk. An example of such a plan is Westchester County’s (NY) Flooding and Land Use manual which covers the following topics related to flooding (among others) in detail:

  • Flooding causes and the relationship to development,
  • Comprehensive and watershed planning,
  • Successful floodplain management tools,
  • Local ordinances,
  • Site plan review tools, and
  • Storm water management design.

Developing a plan comparable to Westchester’s involves assigning a County staff person this task and giving him/her sufficient resources and the authority to use all appropriate means to minimize flood damage.

Conclusion

The County Board should defer final action on the proposed changes to S-3A zoning districts until it also adopts adequate protections to conserve Arlington’s watersheds, to comprehensively assess flood hazard and reduce or mitigate the risk, and to safeguard Arlington residents and their property against flooding.

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