One of the most brought up terms in Alexandria development discussions is Development Special Use Permit — or DSUP — but despite being one of the building blocks for city planning is also one of the more confusing aspects of development.
Karl Moritz, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, said a DSUP is a type of permit that comes up whenever a development could be seen as having a substantial impact on the neighborhood around it.
“When we have any kind of development proposal that has a potential impact on the neighborhood or city that is in any way complicated, we require a special use permit,” Moritz said. “That allows staff to do a more in-depth review for the potential for impacts, and come up with a customized approach for how to solve them.”
According to city documents, a DSUP is required for any project requesting:
- A modification of the parking ratios • A modification to the yard, landscape or open space requirements
- Increased building height or floor area ratio (FAR)
- Affordable housing bonus density
- Special requirements listed in the applicable zone in the Zoning Ordinance
Moritz said these are the cases that go to public hearings, and why they tend to draw discussion.
The alternative to a DSUP is a development site plan — DSP — which Moritz said is fairly rare. DSPs only need approval from the Planning Commission. One of the few notable examples of a DSP was the Alexandria Lighting Store move to the West End, where the project fit within all of the existing zoning limits of the site.
Rob Kerns, development division chief, said if a DSP meets all the city criteria for a site it is considered a by-right development. The Planning Commission would be required to show a deficiency — a requirement not met by the developer — to reject the project.
“That’s a project so simple that they have little potential for impact and we’ve already established a formula for how to handle that impact,” Moritz said. “That’s something like three single family homes, each on their own lot. But an apartment building that’s going to put traffic on the road? Those require special use permits and that kicks them into the special use category.”
Moritz said in the zoning ordinance, there are certain levels of density developers can get away with based on various zoning requirements, but exceeding that threshold requires a DSUP.
Another DSUP trigger is mixed-use development — developments where you’ll typically see residential or office space on higher floors and retail or restaurant uses on the ground floor.
“Some of the more commercial uses, if they want to incorporate them into a project, require a DSUP,” Kerns said. “Valet parking as well. Those are things where we have to analyze that. Mixed use is often one of the triggers for a DSUP.”
Moritz said parking is another DSUP trigger, with projects either supplying more or less parking than the ordinance requires.
Developments can get some allowances on things like density or parking — a longstanding process the city recently codified — but Moritz said there are some limits to that type of trade and the affordable housing swap is already at the fringes of what is allowed.
“But many in the public don’t understand the limitations of things we can ask for,” Moritz said. “There’s a certain legal framework that the state sets out that we need to abide by in processing development in terms of things we can ask from developers. The policies do achieve a lot — but sometimes community members think we can ask more.”
As an example, Moritz said the city is not allowed to ask for a development to contribute to building a sidewalk on the other side of the city. It’s a limit established by the Supreme Court in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission. Read More
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.'”
The home first went to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) in April where the appeal was approved with the condition that no construction can occur within three feet of a neighboring property. It’s now heading to the Board of Architectural Review on Wednesday, July 7, with questions remaining from the BZA about fire code implementation and setback requirements.
“I’m a little concerned about the setback,” said Lee Perna, a member of the BZA, in April. “It does appear exceedingly close… I’m a little concerned about property lines and having sufficient setback, as well as concerns about fire issues and spacing.”
Matt Gray, the applicant and owner of MSG Properties, said getting a home approved on the lot posed a unique challenge.
“It’s not normal at all,” Gray said. “The problem is: you can’t build a house on it without zoning appeals. Nothing complies.”
Gray said the city has existing plans that push mixed-use development throughout the Parker-Gray area, but it means things like setback requirements don’t match with the scale of a smaller development like this. The lot had once been part of a home. According to the staff report, records show a home existing on the property in 1877, though the original date of construction is unknown. The home was demolished in 1985.
“I’m really happy they let it go through,” Gray said. “It’s been sitting for almost 20-30 years. We took the risk and luckily owners worked with us.”
Gray said he worked with the city architect for months to get the house into a design that would be appropriate. If approved, Gray said the next step will be getting the home built as quickly as possible.
In what is possibly the ultimate example of making use of the city’s land scarcity, a new application coming up at the Monday (April 12) Board of Zoning Appeals meeting seeks to turn a Parker-Gray alleyway into a new single-family home.
The 2,000 square foot lot at 1117 Queen Street is strip of gravel between two other homes mainly used for street parking.
It isn’t the first time the property has been a home, however. According to the staff report, records show a home existing on the property in 1877, though the original date of construction is unknown. The home was demolished in 1985.
A staff report on the proposal shows that the property meets almost none of the city’s minimum zoning requirements, but the staff report noted that in the broader context of the street those zoning requirements hold little water.
“The request is a reasonable deviation from the provisions of the CL zone of the Zoning Ordinance,” staff said. “The minimum lot area and lot width, front setback and side yard setback requirements do not reflect the existing historic development character of this neighborhood, nor do they reflect the building that was historically on this property for more than a century. The minimum lot area and lot width, and side yard setbacks result in this lot being unbuildable without variances.”
The staff report noted that no other residential lots on the block meet the minimum lot area either, with some of the lots being less than 1,9000 total square feet.
Ultimately, staff recommend approval of the new development.
Photo via Google Maps
Alexandria’s civic associations came out in force to speak against a loosening of zoning restrictions at public school properties. While the Planning Commission ultimately pushed forward a modified version of the zoning change, there was widespread agreement that the public outreach could have been handled better.
The change had been proposed in 2019 and was docketed for meetings earlier this year, but had disappeared as the pandemic led to those meetings being cancelled until it quietly resurfaced for the Sept. 1 meeting.
The change originally would have allowed Alexandria City Public Schools to build schools up to 0.6 Floor Area Ratio (FAR) by right, meaning without needing public approval, or higher without a set restriction. The version approved at the Planning Commission still allows proposed schools to exceed the density restrictions, but only with a Special Use Permit (SUP) and by no greater than 0.75 FAR.
The proposal had been criticized by the North Ridge Citizens’ Association in the lead-up to the meeting, but was joined by others who protested that the city was quietly pushing the change through without public input.
“When we first learned about this proposal, we had to ask ourselves why our city would be contemplating such sweeping changes to our code without more public notice,” said Kay Stimson, representing the North Ridge Citizen’s Association. “This truly threatens to create a trust deficit between this commission and our residents.”
Stimson said she recognized that schools need greater capacity, but also said the city was pursuing an “increased density” agenda on residents throughout the city.
“If approved, this amendment would be a glaring example of arbitrary, capricious, and unsupportive administrative action by this city with detrimental impacts particularly on low density residential neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure to support the massive new buildings you’re proposing,” Stimson said. “The existing baseline should remain the prevailing density of the neighborhood. If someone wants to build something larger, the point of our zoning process is that they must talk to the public and gain permission. There is no justification whatsoever to allow for unlimited density in a school building. This actually calls into question why we would have a zoning code at all.”
Other residents similarly expressed frustrations that ACPS would be seemingly shielded from density requirements local homeowners face. Pete Benavage, representing the Federation of Civic Associations, said the federation had unanimously voted to oppose the change.
“We fell anything that is reducing the public input; the meaningful and timely public input, is deleterious to the benefit of the citizens of Alexandria,” Benavage said. “This amendment has not been properly vetted by the public and we would urge it either not be adopted or at least be tabled until such time as public vetting can be obtained. ” Read More
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Last week the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to uphold a decision by the Planning Commission to allow a church on W. Braddock Road to expand.
The Alexandria Presbyterian Church’s expansion has faced increasingly pitched opposition from around two dozen neighboring households who worried about increased traffic and the size of the building (~23,000 square feet).
The biggest problem for opponents: the expansion plan was “by-right” under city zoning, meaning the councilmembers, even if inclined to agree with the opponents, had little legal standing to vote against the project.
The exact legal details aside, do you think neighbor complaints like those in this case should be addressed regardless of what zoning allows on a given site?