Arlington County - Planning Process



Below is a brief summary of Arlington County's planning process. It includes:

  • A discussion of the underlying philosophy and goals of the General Land Use Plan.
  • A discussion of the Land Use Plan amendment process.
  • A description of the Site Plan review process.
  • A description of the role of Site Plan conditions.
  • A description of the role and authority of the Planning Commission.

Philosophy and Goals of the General Land Use Plan

The General Land Use Plan (GLUP) is one of eight elements of the Comprehensive Plan for Arlington County. Arlington's Comprehensive Plan is the result of extensive citizen participation. The Comprehensive Plan is viewed as a consistent guide to Arlington's future, yet it is reviewed on an ongoing basis. Citizen participation has over the years led to the refinement of the GLUP and other elements of the Comprehensive Plan.

The GLUP is the primary policy guide for the future development of Arlington County. It establishes the overall character, extent and location of various land uses, and serves as a way to communicate that policy to citizens, interested parties and, most importantly, to the Arlington County Board for guidance in development and preservation decisions. Decisions on rezoning requests are based on the compatibility of the request with the GLUP and existing zoning patterns, with other considerations playing a supporting role in the decision.

The Arlington County Board has endorsed a land use policy that concentrates high density development within the Metro subway corridors and preserves low and medium density residential areas throughout the County. It is designed to ensure that Arlington is a balanced community of residential, recreational, educational, shopping and employment opportunities, with a good transportation and utility network system. The land use policy also provides for a wide variety of market needs, and as markets change the policy is examined for how that change should be reflected in the land use plan.

The genesis of the current GLUP policy was a series of planning efforts initiated in the late 1960s. These efforts reflected an overall community recognition that with the coming of Metro, development was both expected as well as potentially beneficial. The community also expected high quality development to be encouraged but limited to the vicinity of Metro stations. Since the time when these policies were developed, few changes in zoning have been approved that do not conform to this underlying philosophy.

Adopted in 1961, the first GLUP planned most of the County as low density residential, with a concentration of commercial development along Wilson Boulevard, and apartment development along several major arteries (such as Columbia Pike and Arlington Boulevard) and in areas where it already existed. Some areas of the County were not given a land use designation, but rather identified for further study. Subsequent revisions in 1964, 1966 and 1975 saw refinement in the planning of those study areas. In addition, the land use designations for the remainder of the County became more specific and additional detailed GLUP categories were developed.

The 1975, 1979 and 1983 revisions to the GLUP incorporated ongoing planning for the County, especially as reflected in the adoption of Sector Plans for each Metro station area. The Sector Plans, or small area plans, are the most detailed level of planning in Arlington. Each Sector Plan is a specific guide for land use and development in the Metro station area. One has been developed for each station area in the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor. Each Sector Plan was the result of a committee effort, led by the Planning Commission and staff. The Sector Plans made recommendations for specific GLUP, Comprehensive Plan and zoning actions. In some cases, the recommendations also led to the development of new zoning and GLUP categories. The Sector Plans also contain transportation, open space, utility, community facility and urban design analysis and recommendations. These plans continue to guide development decisions today.

In 1987, the County Board adopted a revised GLUP format that stated more fully, in one planning document, its land use policy. The five policy statements adopted at the time were:

  • Concentrate high density residential, commercial and office development within designated Metro Station Areas in the Rosslyn-Ballston and Jefferson-Davis Metrorail transit corridors.
  • Promote mixed-use development in Metro Station Areas to provide a balance of residential, shopping and employment opportunities.
  • Increase the supply of housing by encouraging construction of a variety of housing types and prices at a range of heights and densities in and near Metro Station Areas.
  • Preserve and enhance existing single-family and apartment neighborhoods.
  • Preserve and enhance neighborhood retail areas.

These policies continue to drive land use and development decisions today.

Land Use Amendment Process

Generally, anyone may request an amendment to the General Land Use Plan at any time. There is, however, no formal application. A typical GLUP amendment request generates out of an application to rezone a property to a higher density zoning category that is not compatible with the existing GLUP designation. An amendment to the GLUP is requested to make the GLUP land use designation consistent with the proposed zoning designation. All requests must be forwarded to the County Board for their approval of advertising for public hearing. Most requests for a public hearing are approved by the County Board. A rezoning request that is inconsistent with the existing GLUP designation is rarely approved.

In the areas of the County outside of the Metro Corridors, land use and other plan changes have not been approved very often. Generally, changes are made when detailed small area studies are undertaken in response to particular issues, or at the request of a neighborhood as a reflection of the general goals of the community or particular pressures they are facing.

A request to amend the GLUP in the Metro Corridors, unless consistent with a Sector Plan or other adopted policy of the County, needs to be well supported by evidence and reasoning. Similar to the process in areas outside of the corridors, these requests typically evolve out of a rezoning application to a zoning district category that is not supported by the existing GLUP. All GLUP amendments are heard by the Planning Commission and the County Board, and applicants are encouraged to meet with local civic associations prior to any public hearing.

The Site Plan Review Process

Each zoning district permits a certain type and level of development "by-right." Beyond this, certain districts provide public review processes for a special exception by "site plan" that allows for greater flexibility in use, density and form of development. The Site Plan Review Process provides a tool for the County Board to vary the uses, heights, setbacks, densities and regulations of a zoning district for a specific project to meet goals as reflected in adopted Sector Plans, the Comprehensive Plan or other policies. The majority of proposals that go through the Site Plan Review Process are for hotel, residential, office and mixed-use development in certain high density zoning districts, usually located within the Metro Corridors.

Each site plan is filed in accordance with a public review schedule prepared on an annual basis. The site plan is reviewed internally by staff, by a committee of the Planning Commission called the Site Plan Review Committee, by the Planning Commission, and finally by the County Board. The County Board takes final actions on all site plans. The neighborhoods are invited to all meetings. A special emphasis is placed on inviting citizens to participate in the Site Plan Review Committee meetings, which are less formal than the public hearings held by the Planning Commission and the County Board.

The final approval of the site plan provides for a detailed development proposal, including building materials and landscaping, that the applicant must build unless the site plan is subsequently amended. The final approval also includes a series of detailed conditions that a developer must follow in order to receive a building permit and to continue to be in compliance with the existing zoning on the property. These conditions continue with the property and guide all future decisions regarding development on the property.

The key to the success of the Site Plan Review Process is that additional development rights serve as an incentive to seek a special exception by site plan and participate in the process. The “by-right” zoning is usually a low density district that has a GLUP designation that allows a much higher density. In order to achieve the higher density that is allowed under the GLUP, an applicant must be willing to work with the County and participate in the Site Plan Review Process. For example, a site zoned “C-2” Commercial allows a 1.5 FAR by-right with a height not to exceed 45 feet. If that site is designated for high density office development on the GLUP, the site is eligible for a maximum of 3.8 FAR at a height not to exceed 153 feet. The additional development rights available through the site plan exception are the incentive for the developer to participate in the Site Plan Review Process, and the review and negotiation process allows the County to better achieve many goals. It should be noted that a rezoning to a district that allows a site plan exception is generally necessary in order to achieve this additional density and flexibility. Since Arlington’s base zoning rights are relatively low, it is easy to guide the location of high density development and to ensure that this type of development meets the goals of the County. If the County Board and the developer do not agree on an appropriate site plan and conditions, the requested rezoning is not approved and the developer maintains only the underlying zoning rights.

The Role of Conditions in the Planning Process

The conditions approved with site plans typically address public improvements necessary to serve the site and use under consideration. These include:

  • Water line extensions or upgrades
  • Curb, gutter and sidewalk improvements, including any necessary widenings
  • Sanitary and storm sewer upgrades
  • Traffic and street lights
  • Other infrastructure improvements

Conditions may also address the following:

  • Transportation issues
  • Sign standards
  • Urban design standards
  • Streetscape standards
  • Permit timing
  • Emergency equipment access standards
  • State and federal approval issues
  • Other site specific issues

Most recently, efforts have focused on residential relocation and replacement of affordable units, retail relocation and replacement, and transportation management issues. As a part of the site plan negotiation, child care, housing, open space, historical preservation, community facilities and other community goals are regularly discussed with developers. Arlington has been successful in achieving the donation of open space, affordable housing units and contributions to the County’s housing contingency fund through conditions negotiated through the Site Plan Review process.

The Role and Authority of the Planning Commission

The Planning Commission in Arlington receives its authority in the same manner as other local Virginia jurisdictions: through state enabling legislation. In Arlington, the Planning Commission is appointed by the County Board and plays an advisory role only. It reviews and makes recommendations to the County Board on rezonings, GLUP amendments, other Comprehensive Plan changes such as the Master Transportation Plan, certain special exceptions including site plans, zoning text changes, subdivision ordinance changes, vacation and abandonments of the public right-of-ways, and public land acquisition.

The Planning Commission participates in all major planning efforts and is usually the lead group in involving citizens in these processes. Quarterly work sessions between the County Board and the Planning Commission were recently initiated to ensure a good line of communication between the two bodies.

Last Modified: September 11, 2007
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