Fresh off a year that saw the repeal of Vienna’s controversial Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning ordinance, Vienna Town Council members say they are hopeful that efforts to rewrite the town’s decades-old zoning code will bear more fruit and garner greater buy-in from residents.
Zoning-code revisions must be done carefully, with much attention to detail and public input, to avoid unintended consequences, said Council member Steve Potter.
“These are decisions that are going to dictate the future of the town for the next 50 years,” he said.
The Town Council last June awarded an up-to-$240,000 contract to Calfee Zoning to do begin efforts to clarify, simplify, reorganize and update Vienna’s zoning and subdivision ordinances. The town government on Sept. 23, 2020, kicked off that initiative, dubbed “Code Create Vienna,” which officials hope will wrap up by winter 2021.
The initiative, which will focus largely on commercial areas, will be the first comprehensive code rewrite since 1969, officials said. It is essential that the town get the final results right, said Mayor Linda Colbert.
“We have been rated one of the top towns for a really long time,” Colbert said. “We don’t want to make too many changes, but we want to progress. We can look at zones in Vienna and do a little tweaking. We want to try to get as much consensus with people as possible.”
Council member Ed Somers also hopes the effort will involve much engagement from residents.
“We need to let people visualize what can happen and what they want,” he said. “What I worry about is our code is currently so inconsistent. We haven’t come up with any [real] vision for Maple Avenue. I hope we come up with something cohesive that leads to development that residents want. We need fewer variances and to get as many people as possible to buy into it.”
Council members approved the MAC ordinance in fall 2014 with the hopes of redeveloping the town’s main commercial corridor by offering developers height and density incentives in exchange for sought-after amenities.
The ordinance immediately drew interest from developers, but hundreds of community members subsequently resisted the size of some of the proposed projects and feared about potential impacts on schools, public services, roads and other infrastructure.
The Council in June 2020 voted 4-3 to repeal the MAC ordinance, after temporarily suspending it in fall 2018 following some controversial development cases.
“The problem with the MAC was there were too many loopholes and too many contradictions or omissions that allowed people to take advantage of things that were not meant to be taken advantage of,” Potter said. “It was very hard to move it forward in a consistent manner.”
Council member Charles Anderson, who was serving on the town’s Planning Commission when the Council adopted the MAC ordinance, said the town already is doing a better job of soliciting residents’ input this time around. The MAC’s failure offered plenty of valuable lessons, he said.
“I thing the most important thing we learned from the MAC is that people want Maple Avenue to be redeveloped, but they don’t want it to be entirely residential [or] too dense,” he said.
The town already is attractive to developers, with Maple Avenue handling about 30,000 vehicles per day and residents having an average household income exceeding $150,000, he said.
“Vienna is such a high-value target for developers that you don’t really need to offer a lot of incentives to make redevelopment happen,” Anderson said.
The town needs to diversify its housing stock, but likely will not be able to bring in affordable housing in the traditional sense, given high property values, he said. Vienna has not seen the creation of much multi-family housing because the zoning code, drafted decades ago, effectively discouraged it, Anderson said.
Council member Nisha Patel said she hoped the rewritten zoning code would improve the town’s residential and commercial prospects without detracting from the things that make the town special.
“Vienna is a changing community,” she said. “We want to hold on to the charm we have here in Vienna, but also adapt with the times. We need to merge the two to make a stronger Vienna.”
To learn more about the zoning-code rewrite, visit www.codecreatevienna.com/project-updates.
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