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City considering starting over on zoning ordinance guidelines

As the city’s zoning ordinance nears the 30th anniversary of its last major overhaul, a new process starting this year will look at whether it’s worth continuing to edit and adjust the 1992 document or if the whole thing should be put to pasture with the city starting over fresh.

The zoning ordinance is the guiding document for the city’s approach to all-things-development, from parking requirements to environmental management.

Karl Moritz, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, said this year staff will be combing through the zoning ordinance to see how much of the original language is outdated for 2021 standards and if it’s worth continuing to adapt the document or start fresh.

“We proposed and the Council agreed to put that on the work program for this year; to do an analysis,” Moritz said. “We’re… identifying specific elements of the zoning ordinance that we have noted over time aren’t working the way we want to. This year we’re going to do an analysis to see if we should just start over and do a comprehensive re-do of our zoning analysis, or if it makes sense to scour and fix individual pieces of the ordinance.”

The ordinance has been through substantial revisions since it was first approved when Patsy Ticer was mayor. In January, the city approved adding language that allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs), following similar reforms in Fairfax County and Arlington. Moritz said there have already been some applications to create ADUs, which he attributed primarily to “pent up demand” from locals who had been following the topic and waiting to file their applications.

Another change that wasn’t quite as high profile as the ADU debate was the streamlining of requirements for local businesses. So far, Moritz said there hasn’t been an increase in complaints about local businesses, but he acknowledged that may have more to do with circumstances beyond zoning changes.

“We haven’t seen an increase in complaints, but with the pandemic people are a little more tolerant of restaurants and neighbors are more understanding,” Moritz said. “We’ve also had different rules for operations of restaurants, so it hasn’t been a period where streamlining of restaurant approvals has been an issue. As we recover, it might be an issue where some neighborhoods are surprised.”

Moritz said there wasn’t much public input on the streamlining of business requirements, but there has been on other issues. Rob Kerns, development division chief, said the city is hoping to keep some of the public outreach lessons of the pandemic and apply them on a more permanent basis.

“We’re trying to learn from our outreach in the pandemic,” Kerns said. “That means trying to provide a broader array of outreach, particularly online. We want to make sure people are aware and transparent about the process.”

There are other, minor changes put forward on a yearly basis that show how creaky some of the foundation of the city code is. Recent changes have included lifting a ban on pool halls — once seen as a threat to Alexandria’s youth — and language that referred to therapeutic massage parlors as disreputable.

Internally, Moritz said it’s unclear what the outcome of the analysis of the city’s zoning ordinance will be.

“Who knows what the study and analysis will come up with?” Moritz said. “It might be that people are really ready for it, but people might also say ‘there is a lot that people don’t really see needing change.'”

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