Use Permits for Public Space Design Processes



About the Project

Update from County Board Meeting on December 19, 2023:
The County Board adopted Zoning Ordinance amendments enabling the County Board to approve modifications of height, setback, and parking requirements for publicly owned and/or publicly operated parks and open spaces. Read the staff report that outlines these amendments. Modifications can be approved by the County Board with a use permit, which requires a public hearing and involves notification to civic associations. Read more about the use permit application and process

This project explores an option to issue use permits for structures in parks and public spaces. Use permits can provide opportunities for more flexibility in zoning regulations that would allow the County Board to consider adjustments to standards on a case-by-case basis. These adjustments can be applied to standards such as maximum heights, signage, setbacks, and parking. Changes to amenities and features in the County’s parks and open spaces are preceded by community engagement with local residents and stakeholders.

This initiative for an updated use permit process was rooted in the Action Plan of the 2019 Public Spaces Master Plan which recommends that the County review and consider updating the zoning regulations related to parks and public spaces in “S-3A” and “P-S” districts, specifically related to setbacks, athletic field and other lighting, parking and parking options, dog parks and dog runs, signage, height, water features, fencing and temporary use of public and private property as public space.

More flexibility in zoning standards, via a use permit, for public spaces in S-3A districts can allow the County to meet many important goals including:

  • Moving amenities away from flood zones;
  • Putting shelters and gazebos closer to the travel path of pedestrians;
  • Avoiding unnecessary parking on site;
  • Allowing for higher lights that typically have better technology, less spread, and allow for use of fewer polls.
  • And more.


Flexibility through an updated use permit process could focus on:

Maximum height requirements of buildings

Most public spaces are zoned S-3A, which permits buildings to be as tall as 45 feet. This generally allows for a building of 3-4 floors. Based on the programming provided within a Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) operated facility, buildings may need to be designed with an additional floor or additional height that would push the building beyond the maximum height prescribed by the Zoning Ordinance.


Maximum height requirements of lighting for existing athletic fields

In an S-3A district, the maximum height for any structure, including lights, is 45 feet. Lights are one of the types of mechanical equipment that can extend an additional 23 feet, permitting a total maximum height of 68 feet. Current athletic field lighting technologies can now provide reduced light spillage and glare, but sometimes exceed maximum height standards.




Minimum setback requirements for buildings

In most cases, side and rear yard setbacks between a structure (e.g., buildings, athletic court lighting, etc.) and a property line must be at least 10 feet, with additional distance required when the structure exceeds 25 feet in height. There are some cases where there is technically enough room for structures such as lights or small restrooms, but they would exceed the minimum setback requirement.


Current allowances of lighting above 15 feet within setbacks for athletic fields and courts

Currently, the only structures allowed within setbacks are pedestrian and trail lighting up to 15feet in height. For smaller parks, within setbacks may be the most optimal location for athletic field lighting to maximize space for the athletic activity and/or to adequately illuminate the play area, while ensuring the light is focused on the playing surface. However, these lights would violate the current setback standard because athletic field and court lights exceed current heights standards.


Minimum setback requirements for fencing which exceeds maximum height of 8 feet

Fences and walls located within a required setback (close to the property line/sidewalk) can currently be as tall as 8 feet in height, but may need to be taller in certain circumstances. Retaining walls, like the ones seen for Oak Grove Park and the ones under consideration for Bluemont Park, may need to be taller than 8 feet to control steep slopes and grade changes. Some athletic facilities, such as basketball and tennis courts, use taller fences to prevent balls from escaping the activity area – the minimum as is could force an elimination of that amenity.


Minimum parking requirements

Parking requirements can vary based on the type of DPR facility. For example, outdoor facilities (ex. basketball courts) and indoor facilities (ex. the “bubble” covering the rectangular field at Gunston Middle School) require 1 parking space to be provided for every 300 square feet of area used for recreational purposes. Tennis courts require 3 parking spaces for every 1 court and fitness centers require 1 space for every 50 square feet of gross floor area.

In some instances, the required amount of parking may result in excessive area in a public space being devoted to automobile parking despite other access already provided by transit, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities. Some public spaces have plentiful street parking options that are not regularly used by businesses and/or residents which can be utilized; parking requirements could also be reduced to increase existing tree preservation and/or reduce impervious surfaces for purposes of stormwater management.


Requirements for signs

Signs in public spaces must adhere to several zoning standards. Only one freestanding sign per entrance can be installed in a public place, and freestanding signs must be set back 10 feet from a sidewalk or 5 feet from other property lines. Freestanding signs may be as large as 60 square feet in sign area. Flags, which are considered signs for purposes of zoning, can only be flown from a flagpole that is located within 30 feet of the principal entrance of a main building. Moreover, signs erected by concessionaires and/or event sponsors are permitted only when the sign is not legible from public right-of-way, and only if the sign is within a facility that is at least 200 feet or more from the nearest right-of-way.

Increasingly, the County utilizes creative, unique signage to identify public spaces. Signs for wayfinding and education are commonly used, but must be limited to no more than 6 square feet in size. In limited instances, additional signs or larger signs can better accomplish these goals particularly when located near frequently used pedestrian routes. 



About the Process



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