Peter’s Take: Toward A New Vision For Smart Growth In Arlington

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

In last week’s column, I noted that Arlington residents are increasingly concerned about the challenges of future growth and development.

I suggested that the Arlington County and School Boards should do some long-term strategic thinking about aspects of our smart growth policies that should be re-examined and new tools that should be considered to address our challenges.

I further recommended that the County Board should propose for community discussion a draft of topics to discuss in a broad-based community process leading to Smart Growth 2.0.

This thoughtful response to my column was provided on social media:

We need a new vision and I think you are really into something important. For those of us that care about the County’s future I wonder if you would consider translating this piece into “layperson’s” terms. You assume a tremendous base of knowledge in the description of the problem and the solution. It will continue to be a small group of people making decisions for a large and diverse group of residents if the process is typical.


We do need a new vision. That new vision should not be decided by a small group of people making decisions for a large and diverse group of residents.

In the spirit of translating last week’s piece into “layperson’s” terms, and at the (very acceptable) risk of offending some of the lawyers and Smart Growth 1.0 theologians in the audience, there are two types of development in Arlington.

By-right development

By-right development is the kind of development that already has been authorized by the County Board through prior zoning decisions. The way Virginia law works, this is the kind of development that the County Board can’t revoke.

So when you hear somebody calling for a “moratorium on development because we are growing too fast,” forget about a moratorium as applied to by-right development. However, there are many policies that the county legally could undertake that would spur or restrain by-right development.

Discretionary development

Discretionary development can only occur if the County Board takes affirmative action to change existing zoning to enable it. Here, the County Board has a lot more power: it can deny a development proposal outright, or it can say: yes, you can–but only if you agree to certain conditions.

Cost of new school seats

Based on the best available projections of school enrollment growth, and the cost of new school seats, Arlington should exercise its power to condition some discretionary development proposals on a developer’s acceptance of certain related conditions. For example:

  • a developer seeks to build a large, multi-family rental apartment building containing hundreds of units
  • the existing zoning for that site currently does not permit anything like such a project

The county should negotiate more effectively with developers of such discretionary projects to obtain cash or in-kind contributions from those developers to defray the costs to the public of the new school seats, parks, and other public infrastructure required to serve the new residents in such a proposed new building.

Some county insiders claim that Arlington is prohibited either by the Dillon Rule or by state law from ever imposing these kinds of conditions. Their claims are false.


Together as a community, we should adopt a new vision of Smart Growth 2.0 that is appropriate for today’s circumstances.

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