Vienna Planning Commission debates higher density for site

Developer Dennis Rice of JDA Custom Homes is asking the town of Vienna to rezone a small strip of land at 117 Courthouse Road, S.W., (outlined in red) in order to use it along with an adjacent residential property as part of a three-house subdivision.

A developer’s proposal to rezone a small strip of commercial land for inclusion in a proposed three-house subdivision will head to the Vienna Town Council without a recommendation from the town’s Planning Commission.

The proposal on a 4-4 tie vote June 24 did not win the Commission’s blessing not because it was too dense, but rather because some members thought a more-intensive “transitional” use, such as townhouses, might provide lower-cost housing and shield the nearby single-family residential neighborhood from the town’s busy Maple Avenue corridor.

Dennis Rice of JDA Custom Homes is asking the town to rezone  a parcel at 117 Courthouse Road, S.W., from commercial to the RS-10 single-family detached  residential zone. The 0.3-acre strip of land, which is about 40 feet wide, is located adjacent to the 200 block of Maple Avenue, W., behind the Jiffy Lube and part of the Vienna Shopping Center.

The site formerly was part of the right-of-way for the Arlington and Fairfax Railroad, which used to provide trolley service between those two counties and, via connection, to Washington, D.C. The railway line underwent multiple ownership changes in the 1930s and eventually went out of business, said Deputy Planning and Zoning Director Michael D’Orazio.

The parcel now is part of the yard for the adjacent property at 121 Courthouse Road, S.W., which currently has two structures on it. The thin strip of land is “basically useless” for any kind of development because most of it would have to be used for required setbacks, the applicant said.

Rice would like to consolidate the properties, then divide them into three lots of about 20,000 square feet each, or slightly less than a half-acre. The developer potentially could subdivide the property at 121 Courthouse Road, S.W., even without obtaining rezoning for the land strip, but the resulting lots would be thinner than desired, Rice said.

Several Planning Commission members said the location seems ideal for transitional uses.

“A single-family house in this location would be a fish out of water, in my opinion,” said Chairman Stephen Kenney, who pointed out that two fairly large parking lots bracket the site.

Rice agreed, but said his proposal intentionally did not seek development intensity.

“We felt that if we came in with the lowest density possible, that we weren’t going to be looked upon as trying to overreach,” he said. “I don’t  disagree that that would be a good place [for transitional uses]. It’s close to the center of town, as close as you can get.”

Rice has seen his share of residents’ opposition to higher-density development. Last year, some neighbors fought against his proposed mixed-use project at 374-380 Maple Ave., W., which the Town Council ended up approving. The Council on Jan. 27 this year agreed to let Sunrise Development Inc. convert that project into an 85-unit assisted-living facility with 120 beds and 950 square feet of restaurant or cafe space on the ground floor.

Commissioners David Patariu, Andrew Meren, Sharon Baum and Michael Gelb voted to recommend Rice’s Courthouse Road rezoning application to the Town Council. While not necessarily opposing the proposal, Chairman Kenney, Vice Chairman Sarah Couchman and Commissioners Julie Hays and David Miller voted nay. Commissioner Jessica Plowgian was absent from the meeting.

Miller said he opposes any up-zoning of the property. While acknowledging Miller’s point that the Commission is an advisory body, Couchman said members should advocate for positive long-term outcomes.

“If we don’t try to further the goals and visions of this town, then there’s no point in us being here,” she said.

The Town Council will review Rice’s application Aug. 31 and the developer also may submit a second plan that would raise the possibility of transitional uses for at least part of the combined properties.

Kenney, who will send the Council a memorandum outlining the Commission members’ views on the matter, cautioned that a higher-density alternate proposal would not necessarily be a slam dunk.

“The neighbors could come out with pitchforks at the next meeting and say, ‘You guys are crazy. We don’t want this,’” he said.

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