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FairfaxPlanning body seeks more development potential around airport

Planning body seeks more development potential around airport

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The Fairfax County Planning Commission on June 8 backed a proposed comprehensive-plan amendment to allow residential uses in noisier areas near Washington Dulles International Airport, sending the measure to the Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors in July 2020 authorized creation of a plan amendment to permit residential uses in the 60-to-65-decibel noise-level areas, or “contours,” around airports, along with requiring measures to protect residents and homebuyers.

Permitting residential uses in those zones could provide housing, boost economic development and let residents live and work in a mixed-use area with reasonable commutes, county staff said.

The county-wide plan amendment would apply only to Washington Dulles International Airport, which straddles the boundary between Loudoun and Fairfax counties.

About 92 percent of the land in the 60-to-65-decibel contour near Dulles Airport either is developed already or subject to plan amendments and entitlements approved earlier. Much of it is commercial or industrial, but some areas south of the airport are residential in nature.

The areas affected by the plan are around Dulles Airport and mostly in Sully District, although there is a small section along Route 28 in Dranesville District.

About 3,000 acres in the 60-to-65-decibel noise contours would be affected by the amendment and only about 8 percent of that land – roughly 237 acres – is available for redevelopment, staff said. Site-specific plan amendments, along with noise-mitigation measures, would be needed to redevelop those properties, officials said.

The proposed amendment would require noise studies and measurements during the land-entitlement process; commitments to construction standards and materials resulting in interior noise levels of 45 decibels or less; modeling and verification of noise-attenuation effectiveness before construction; and disclosures concerning airport noise and aircraft-navigation easements.

A county plan amendment adopted in March 1997 added 60-to-65-decibel noise contours for the first time around Dulles and did not recommend new residential development in those zones. The contours were developed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).

In May 2019, supervisors approved a plan amendment allowing residential uses in the 60-to-65-decibel contour area in Westfields. Certain conditions applied, including mitigation of noise impacts.

The Planning Commission held a May 18 public hearing on the airport-noise amendment, but deferred decision for three weeks. Some community members on May 18 expressed reservations about the proposal.

The Federal Aviation Administration and MWAA have recommended that no new residential construction be allowed within areas exposed to up to 65 decibels of aircraft noise, said Jeffrey Parnes of the Sully District Council of Citizens Associations.

Adrienne Whyte, president of Reclaim Fairfax County, said most county supervisors “apparently value economic development over the health, safety and welfare of its residents.”

Noise causes stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption and lost productivity, Whyte said.

“I believe it is inexcusable that the county has not comprehensively studied the adverse effects of airport-noise exposure on health and welfare in conjunction with this plan amendment,” she said.

Michael Cooper, MWAA’s manager of state and local government affairs, asked the county to adopt MWAA’s 2019 noise contours for the 60-decibel area, as Loudoun County had, rather than rely on those from 1993.

MWAA’s 1993 noise contours were based on only three runways at Dulles. The airport currently has a fourth runway, which was built 800 feet farther west than anticipated in the 1993 plan, plus capacity for a fifth, he said.

“Continuing to use the 1993 contours . . . is relying on outdated science that does not reflect the current conditions as we see them today, including where the planes fly,” Cooper said.

At the June 8 meeting, Planning Commission member Evelyn Spain (Sully District) read a statement by Supervisor Kathy Smith (D-Sully), who chairs the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use Policy Committee.

“As the board, we have the responsibility of balancing the competing interests of long-term economic vitality and pressing housing needs with the need for thoughtful land-use planning and zoning that is consistent with long-term airport planning and development needs,” Smith wrote.

“Dulles Airport is one of our key economic engines, and supporting its success and that of the airlines that serve it are a major benefit to our community’s economic success,” she wrote.

Developers and land owners in Fairfax County need a “consistent land-use environment that allows them to make significant investments in our community,” Smith wrote. “Finally, homeowners and residents need the assurance that their investment and environment [are] protected for the future.”

The Board of Supervisors will hold a June 28 public hearing to discuss the amendment. Smith said she is working on additional language to “find a balanced and thoughtful solution between our long-term airport land-use-compatibility needs in the Sully District and around the county.”

Commission member Mary Cortina (Braddock District) said the amendment was a “practical formality” that reconciles the comprehensive plan, but said it shifts traditional local land-use planning to a “Buyer Beware” policy where purchasers bear the responsibility for their choices.

The amendment does not require minimum noise-transmission-class ratings for roofs, walls, windows and doors, unlike the policy for areas with 65 decibels and higher, Cortina said. Unlike in other aspects of the zoning ordinance, proffers made in areas covered by the amendment would be voluntary instead of mandatory, she said.

Commission member Julie Strandlie (Mason District) who abstained from the vote along with chairman Peter Murphy (Springfield District), favored stronger notification language regarding airport noise.

“Simply adding promotional materials to leasing documents and association documents [is] just not effective,” she said. “I would like to see some additional consumer-protection provisions that are actually effective.”

The county should revisit MWAA’s 2019 noise contours, Murphy said.

“I think the people who testified on those items deserve a direct answer,” he said.

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