[Update: County Board members on March 20 set public-hearing dates for this proposal for April, as proposed by staff.]
Two potentially conflicting constituencies – advocates of affordable housing and residents of single-family neighborhoods – could end up colliding if Arlington County Board members next month move forward on a recommendation to allow much higher building heights in some transitional areas of the county.
The proposal, backed by county staff and having been kicked around in various forms for several years, calls for allowing (though not permitting by right) building heights higher by 60 feet than normally allowed in a number of zoning districts, if the buildings comprise 100-percent affordable housing.
Zoning districts impacted would be RA6-15, RA8-18 and RA14-26. Those districts are dotted throughout the county, sometimes backing up to more traditional residential zoning, providing a buffer between those neighborhoods and commercial development.
The measure, if enacted, would be “a reasonable action to avoid missing affordable-housing-development opportunities” until a more comprehensive rewrite of zoning rules could be enacted, said Nick Rogers of the county’s housing staff.
County Board members on March 20 are expected to vote on a measure to hold hearings on the proposal, tentatively slated for April 5 before the Planning Commission and ending up back at the County Board on April 17.
Arlington’s zoning plan dates to 1942, and a comprehensive review of RA-zoned districts has not occurred since the late 1970s, staff said, although in 1992 County Board members allowed increased height and density in those districts in return for developers’ providing affordable housing on those sites.
In 2001, such “bonus density” was increased from 15 percent to 25 percent, and in 2019, zoning changes allowed even more bonus density, albeit within existing height limitations.
While such changes have met with only limited opposition on a theoretical level, there have sometime been significant, and ugly, political fights over specific projects, particularly when a neighborhood feels a proposed project nearby is too tall or dense for its surroundings.
County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti told the Sun Gazette it was too early to pass judgment on the proposal, but did approve of exploring ways “to encourage the development of affordable housing.”
“The proposal coming before the board this Saturday is one more potential tool to achieve the goals of our Affordable Housing Master Plan,” he said, saying that even if enacted in April or later, it would only be used “on a case-by-case basis for a limited number of site-plan-development proposals when the proposed.”
“While I think this proposal is worthy of consideration, I will be listening carefully to the debate on it,” de Ferranti said.