The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has approved a new zoning designation that eases restrictions on mixed-use commercial and residential development, a move county planners say will help reduce low-density residential sprawl.
The board voted 5-3 on the measure during its March 2 meeting, with all five Democrats voting in favor, and all three Republicans opposed.
Prince William County Planning Director Parag Agrawal said the new zoning types would help the county focus higher-density growth near public transit, create pedestrian-friendly communities and help preserve open space adjacent to proposed developments. The county is specifically targeting “mixed-uses” – allowing a mix of residential and commercial development – for its small area plans and along commercial corridors in need of revitalization, Agrawal said.
“The goal and purpose of creating these mixed-use zoning districts are that we are trying to create ‘live, work and play’ communities in Prince William County. We want to encourage a mix of housing, commercial and employment uses. We want to provide more housing and more transportation options for our county residents,” Agrawal said.
The new zoning designation eliminates current restrictions that prevent developers from easily applying for mixed-use project proposals. Some of those rules required developers to add “buffers” to separate commercial and residential uses or required them to seek waivers for modifications to such rules, Agrawal said.
“If someone wants to have a mixed-use building … then you have to go through a very complicated rezoning process,” Agrawal said. “That is the reason we have very few mixed-use buildings in our county.”
The new mixed-use zoning designation allows for a range of building types and heights throughout the county, including small-scale, mixed-use neighborhood developments for suburban neighborhoods and larger mixed-use types up to 250 feet tall in urban areas.
County planner Alex Venegas said the planning department does not anticipate larger urban mixed-use developments to occur anytime soon. But he added that it provides the option for future mixed-use development adjacent to the county’s VRE stations and in other high-density areas like North Woodbridge.
“We kept it at 250 feet. That is something that we won’t see in the next 10 years, but we have the potential to do that around our VRE stations,” Venegas said. “... Transit is the key component.”
Venegas added that Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Alexandria, Leesburg and Manassas already have similar mixed use zoning districts. He said that adopting the mixed-use designation in Prince William will help the county’s commercial and residential real estate market remain competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.
County planners also say the new zoning designation will help create compact neighborhoods that will help preserve open space in outlying areas, and “produce livelier community spaces with public gathering places and a variety of shops, restaurants, and entertainment,” according to county documents.
Agrawal said more mixed-use zoning throughout the county would attract more employment centers and would help the county increase its commercial tax base.
The board’s three Republicans expressed concerns over whether the proposal would allow the board’s Democratic majority to create high-density developments in their districts against their wishes.
Those concerns stem from several high-profile land-use cases that Republican district supervisors opposed for their districts but that were approved anyway by the board’s five Democrats.
“I don’t trust this board. I don’t trust the majority of this board to use this responsibly in the western end,” said Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville. “I’m fearful that this is going to be used to introduce projects that the western-end supervisors don’t want in their districts.”
Supervisor Yesli Vega, R-Coles, proposed removing urban mixed-use options, which allow the highest densities in the mixed-use classification, from the new zoning designation before adopting it. But the proposal received no support from the Democratic supervisors.
Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, said the new zoning type would allow for redevelopment to occur in areas on the eastern side of the county, including in the Occoquan District, that “have been needing that revitalization.”
“This allows us to put better tools in place on the eastern end and help bring those neighborhoods back to life,” Boddye said.
Three representatives from the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, a group that supports the Northern Virginia housing industry, spoke in favor of the zoning designation during public comment time.
Mike Vanderpool of the NVBIA said the new zoning designation is a “smart growth” tool that would help developers work with the county in redeveloping areas of Prince William. Vanderpool said developers know how “how expensive it is to revitalize some place when it’s tipped in the wrong direction.”
“We have lots of vacant stores and lots of vacant space, and bringing those areas back takes decades and a lot of money and a lot of effort,” Vanderpool said. “There are areas here where we may be able to prevent that from happening with this tool.”
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