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County Planners Are Overworked, But the Planning Commission Has an Idea to Help

Arlington’s planning department is stretched too thin and cannot take on a bigger workload, its director told the County Board this week.

At full strength, the 30-person staff of the Department of Community, Planning and Housing Development shepherds a myriad development projects and permit applications through county processes, from cafés seeking to renew their outdoor dining permits to developers planning large-scale projects. It also helps to produce the lengthy planning documents that guide the future development of neighborhoods.

Right now, with a flurry of activity underway in the wake of the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2, seven major long-range planning studies are in process. The department anticipates overseeing 10 major development applications while working through more than 400 minor development and administrative approvals, CPHD Director Anthony Fusarelli, Jr. told the Planning Commission and the County Board during a joint meeting.

“To have this number of ongoing planning efforts and engagements at one time… truly represents a substantial volume of ongoing work being managed by the division, also requiring time energy and resources by other county staff and the community,” Fusarelli said during his presentation. “Collectively, these ongoing efforts command a significant amount of staff resources, leaving little if any capacity to add new work and initiate additional projects at this time.”

Once major projects are done or big milestones reached, he said staff will be freed up to start new initiatives or address new county priorities.

While deferential to the hard work of CPHD, Planning Commission and County Board members had a few ideas for work CPHD should undertake in the near future, from changing how the county evaluates the environmental impact of developments to not losing sight of deferred projects such as implementing the plan to enliven Four Mile Run Valley.

One potential change could save CPHD time and resources, argued Planning Commission Chair James Lantelme. Currently, renovations to “non-conforming” duplexes, townhouses and low-rise multifamily buildings go through the same lengthy approval process used for major developments, known as Site Plan Review. He suggested instead that these folks, who want relief from zoning regulations, go through the Board of Zoning Appeals, which hears similar requests from those on single-family residential lots.

“I’m assuming we’re going to be seeing more of these small things coming before us, and we think we really need to deal with this,” Lantelme said. “It’s a waste of the Planning Commission’s time, it’s a waste of staff time. We have a huge amount of consequential work, and to have a Site Plan for one duplex…  there’s no value added by doing that. It’s not appropriate, and in fact, it’s contrary to what our comprehensive plan is advocating for, for affordable housing — for housing period — and for equity.”

It’s likely on his mind because the commission oversaw one such project, a request to build out the deck of a townhouse, which recently received County Board approval, and members are now reviewing another, a duplex renovation proposed by the owner. The approvals feature televised, public meetings and detailed presentations created by planning staffers.

The townhome was in a “legacy district” used for a few developments in the 1970s, while duplex sits on a smaller-than-standard lot that had been grandfathered into a zoning district. Both owners proposed increasing the footprint of their home, tipping them into the Site Plan Review path, which requires lawyers, experts, and Planning Commission and County Board approvals.

“If it was a McMansion, it would go through BZA,” Lantelme said. “You have to go through more time, expense and uncertainty in order to have a duplex, which is what we want in these areas… It would really save us time money and staff resources if we could get this addressed.”

County Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol and Chair Matt de Ferranti appeared to agree.

“I fully support a streamlined way to move forward,” he said.

Fusarelli seemed open to weaving these ideas into the Missing Middle Housing study, which is examining whether districts zoned for single-family homes ought to accommodate other housing types, such as plexes and townhouses.

“So perhaps, for the purposes of today, allow staff to take that back as we get ready to engage in next phase of Missing Middle. [Let us] pull this into part of our thinking about efficiencies gained in how we’re thinking about the one initiative, compared with the challenge that, we would agree with,” the planning director said. “It’s not just a big drain and draw on Planning Commission and the community’s time. We have to allocate staff to lead review of duplex site plans projects.”

The good news, Fusarelli said, is that CPHD expects to complete four planning studies in the next six months, which could free up staff time.

Studies set for completion include one that will guide future development for Pentagon City, another regarding updates to the Clarendon Sector Plan, last updated in 2006, and reviews of building heights in Crystal City and ground floor uses on Columbia Pike.

A planning guide for Langston Blvd and the Missing Middle Housing Study, meanwhile, could be completed next fall.

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