County Board Approves New Regulations for School Height, Setbacks, Pa

Published on December 10, 2016


  • Board to have authority to modify height, setback requirements, subject to use permit approval

  • Three proposed schools do not comply with all existing Zoning requirements for height, setback


The County Board today approved changes to the Zoning Ordinance that give the Board the authority, subject to use permit approval, to modify height and setback requirements and revise existing provisions for allowing the Board to approve modifications in parking requirements for elementary, middle and high schools.

Three Arlington Public Schools proposals, currently under review, prompted a recent study of height, setbacks and parking requirements for schools in S-3A districts, the primary zoning district for a variety of public uses. The Wilson, Stratford and Thomas Jefferson school proposals do not comply with all existing Zoning Ordinance height and setback requirements.

"Land in Arlington is scarce. We must do everything we can to ensure that our precious space is used efficiently for community facilities," said County Board Chair Libby Garvey. "These amendments allow flexibility in school design proposals so that creative and innovative solutions that preserve space can be encouraged."

Four criteria for modifying height and setbacks


In order to modify height and setbacks, the County Board would have to find that the proposed school development project:

  • Has scale and massing compatible with of adjacent existing and planned development;

  • Facilitates the use of the range of transportation options available to the property;

  • Balances opportunities for open space and recreational amenities in a manner appropriate for the size and location of the site; and

  • Emphasizes energy conservation and environmental sustainability through design, materials and construction methods.


Additionally, the proposed amendment would revise existing provisions for allowing the County Board to approve modifications in parking requirements, in order to make the requirements applicable to a wider range of properties.

The Board voted 5 to 0 to approve the changes to the Zoning Ordinance. To read the staff report, scroll to item No. 35 on the Agenda for the December 10, 2016 County Board Regular Meeting.

The S-3A district is a unique zoning district, intended to encourage retention of undeveloped land, in addition to being used as the primary zoning district for many public uses such as schools, parks, open space uses and community facilities.

Extensive public review of planned schools


Schools are reviewed through the special exception use permit process, which includes an extensive public review process by the Public Facilities Review Committee (PFRC). The PFRC looks closely at the design of proposed schools with specific attention to urban design and massing, transportation, open space and recreation, and sustainability. The new regulations maintain this review process and require that in order to approve modifications in height or setbacks, the physical context and compatibility with adjacent land uses is considered.

Community process


The Zoning Ordinance amendments were reviewed by the Zoning Committee of the Planning Commission. Representatives of the Environment and Energy (E2C2), Parks and Recreation, Sports, Transportation and Urban Forestry commissions, and a representative from Arlington Public Schools, were invited to participate in the discussion.

The amendments also were reviewed at meetings of the Park and Recreation Commission,  Urban Forestry Commission and Planning Commission.

For more information, visit the Zoning Studies page on the County website.