Alexandria’s top urban planners live outside the city. Does it matter?


Just two of the city’s top planners call Alexandria home, but whether residency matters for the job depends on who answers the question.

Simultaneously crafting plans for the city’s waterfront and Beauregard corridor while juggling a host of development projects from North Old Town to Arlandria and the West End, planning and zoning employees have taken fire from residents — ranging from displeased to irate — in the public sphere for months.

Many don’t live within city limits, and it’s a point critics point to time and again. Faroll Hamer, department director, crosses the river from Maryland. Development division chief Gwen Wright comes from Washington. Tom Canfield and Karl Moritz, city architect and deputy director respectively, commute from other Virginia communities, while deputy directors Barbara Ross and Jeff Farner live in the city proper.

Does the job of urban planning require residency? No, said Jeff Soule, the American Planning Association’s director of outreach, but it is an undeniable advantage.

“There’s no hard rule that APA has about it, but certainly our opinion is there is a benefit of having planners live in the area where they work,” he said. “Accessibility is key. One of the key roles planners play is in facilitating public participation, and knowledge of the nuances of the place make a big difference.”

Accessibility and public participation mean top planners are expected to go above and beyond the 9-to-5 schedule to speak with residents, host meetings and interact with civic groups, Soule said. A planner can and should do that whether they live in the municipality or not.

But resident David Dexter, former chairman of the city’s BRAC-133 advisory committee, prefers when department staff reside in the community. Otherwise there’s a feeling planning officials aren’t sensitive to the wishes of residents, he said.

“I’m personally not adverse to development, but I think it needs to be really carefully thought out, well planned and there has to be a consensus within the community that is being directly affected by that development,” Dexter said. “There’s a general sense that the folks in planning and zoning are all pro development, basically doing anything they can without thinking through the consequences and understanding what the community wants to see in the City of Alexandria.”

City Manager Rashad Young, who holds the sole public position requiring residency, argues the residency question is a moot point and misses the real issue. Professionalism and ability matter, he said, not residency.

“Singling out or focusing on where someone lives diminishes their professional expertise,” he said. “On the professionalism side, I don’t think [geography] makes any difference.”
It’s a good talking point, said resident Don Buch, but it’s not as though living outside Alexandria makes an employee incompetent. To him, being good or bad at a job has more to do with a person than his or her hometown.

“If you loved what they were doing it probably would be irrelevant where they lived,” Buch said. “Whether they did a great job on the waterfront plan or not is not reflective of where they live.”

The planning commission and city council, comprised of residents, set the agenda and have final say, Buch and Young noted. Even if every member of the department lived in the city, geography likely would remain an issue, according to Buch.

“If you live in Ford’s Landing and you’re making a Beauregard corridor decision, is it dramatically different than if you lived on the other side of the bridge? Hopefully you make a good decision,” he said.
And requiring planning department employees to live where they work might hinder objectivity. There could be a case of a planner living in a neighborhood where a controversial project is proposed or an employee who wants to develop their property, Soule notes.

At the end of the day, objectivity is the first duty of a planner regardless of where they live, he said.

“Certainly if you live in Prince William County you’re not going to know as much about what is going on in a daily basis in Alexandria, but it wouldn’t mean you couldn’t do your job,” Soule said.



  1. I think that residency matters in part. Planing staff that live in the town they work in would certainly have a clearer idea of what is appropriate development — why affordable housing matters……and what is not right. The waterfront is a good example. The plan that was created has no symbiotic relationship to this historic town. the Beauregard SAP is not about building a better community per se.

    However, I think the real problem is mental and political etc: we are hiring people who have a particular development perspective, and elected officials are pushing those views even it rubs the community the wrong way. The community is most definitively NOT setting the agenda — it is not a cooperative, collaborative relationship with the Council and Planning Commission and staff.

    The planning process is a mess. Developers are in effect setting the agenda, and the City is trying to implement it over strong and often very thoughtful citizen opposition.

    It’s primarily a political issue. The current members of the City Council with several exceptions are behind all of this “bad” planning. The Council can quite easily tell the City Manager, City Attorney: you will be fired unless you make changes in the staffing and planning process. The fact that little changes tells you all you need to know

    Maybe we have two many Council members living in Del Ray? And I note several more who are running again who were on Council when The City Council “approved, forgot about, can’t recall” that they encouraged the BRAC -133 space ship to land almost on top of an existing community and nature preserve.

    On primary day and election day you can say what you think.

    Andrew Macdonald

  2. Given the significant salaries the top staff of P & Z as well as those from TES earn, the City is merely a place you work and not something you financially invest in if you don’t live here. If they make bad decisions on their jobs, it does not impact on their home’s financial values, as it does for everyone else that lives here. Several of the planners have infused a total air of unreality in their proposals which has zero impact on their own lives. Thus the residents are stuck with bad decisions made by the staff. And most don’t have the luxury of moving somewhere else, given the current economy. The outside employees at the top don’t need to invest in the city’s schools, parks, recreation areas. At the same time, they often seem to show minimal concern for the “quality of life” aspects that are severely jeopardized by their proposals which appear aimed at generating profits for outside entities. They equally ignore the benefit/risk components from their proposals and decisions. If they lived here, they would be just as impacted by the lack of balance in some proposals as the residents are. We would be better served as a City if we had a neutral Ombudsman who lived within the City boarders and was intimately familiar with the concerns of residents.

  3. Living in the communnity you work in does matter, as you are more invested, and you care more what the neighbors you see when you get heme think. The Ciy Manager moved into Cameron Station partially to be close to Tucker Elementary so we know he will be invested in the communnity. Maybe it is something that requires a new policy, like additional point scores in hiring if you live or are planning to move into the city. Of course this cannot be done retroactively, so it would apply to new hires. Of course if the best applicant for a position lives outside the city, hopefully there good qaulities would then outweigh the fact that tey don’t live in the city. I think it is a positive goal to want the planners and policy makers in our city to live here and want to be part of our city. It is part of building a better communnity.

  4. After reading the article, I decided to go the the American Planning Association’s website. There was a lot I did not know but, what I soon found is that those who partake in this field are really apart of an organization that is dedicated to people and communities. There is a wealth of issues ranging from the federal level to the local that really probably affect us all at some level.

    These are the folks who time and time again go out to the community meeting regardless if the live in or out of the City. And just in case you have not been to one lately, these community meetings are not held during the day nor are meeting with the various Boards held during the day like in other neighborhing jurisdiction (and I would know since I work at one), yet they still do their jobs.

    I find it ironic that folks are questioning City of Alexandria employees yet if the District of Columbia made it a requirement for the many folks who live in the neighborhing jurisdictions to live within the District of Columbia propers, folks would be outraged. The fact is that if you work in the District and live outside of the boundaries does it affect your job performance? Are you not taking dollars outside of the District that can be used for schools?

    In addition, to recruit talented folks who can withstand the inflamatory and derogatory comments and insults that continuely have been displayed to staff as was witnessed during the Waterfront hearing would turn most professionals away. So, should the City not hires someone who has superb credentials for someone who lack those and experience just because they live outside of the borders? The City’s gain has been some other jurisdictions loss.

    And as for the theory of affecting home values, while every jurisdiction has been affected, you still cannot buy much (if anything at all) for less than $400,000 so that theory does not hold water either.

    I think I would rather have a group of folks who can help give vision to the City as opposed to having property owners just build whatever as long as it complies with the rules. I urge you before you jump on the band wagon of “anti Planning & Zoning Department” and “anti qualified staff”, take a look at what the American Planning Association and these professionals are really about.

  5. If these were formally trained urban planners, not experienced “zoners”, with experience that anticipates the nature and scope of the projects here in Alexandria, then perhaps their living in the places they reshape would matter less. But the matchup of relevant training and experience is relatively poor and exacerbated by the distance – both emotional and intellectual – from the places being redrawn.

    I can only speak for my own experience living in several different dense urban areas: New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Old Town Alexandria. Without hesitation or a doubt I can say that when you live in a place how you treat it matters … a great deal. Because how you treat it, and the people who live in it with you, is how in the end it treats you. Throw trash around, and it ends up on your doorstep.

    Each of these cities has such distinctive characters and differences that being “in it” makes you walk, talk, shop, stop, speed up, cross lines, smile, and be careful who you bump into ways you would never expect of yourself. It is this that demands vitally alive and responsive urban planners who live with those they plan for — with the people, not the place — they plan for. For example, I and many others who live here (I’ve heard them) say “thank you” to our bus drivers here in Old Town; I would never think to do that in New York City. On the other hand no one holds a bus better than a New Yorker, when they spot someone zeroed in and on the run.

    The clean open spaces and sunshine of San Francisco express themselves in a clothing style and carefree air that would defy the messier streets and style of downtown Philly. But Philly puts together cheesesteaks like nowhere else, and an Amish market that holds itself apart from all the organics in way make it a mecca. And it is the behavioral nuances that make these places vibrant and alive – just like you recognize your friends at a great distance from how they walk and wave their hands around.

    Recently, there have been many articles appearing around the world documenting the ways cities are re-thinking and expressing small areas. Two days ago the WALL STREET JOURNAL ran an article discussing why people are healthier, happier and economically thriving in towns with many small merchants – rather than big box stores. Social cohesiveness and exercise were two reasons. Here, Takoma Park, is busy narrowing its streets to curtail the impact of traffic. And a tiny town in Virginia raised $10 million to create a traffic circle that would take vehicles outside its historic and residential district. APA’s opinion that it is beneficial to have planners live where they work is not surprising. It stimulates creative and determined action.

    Living where you change the place and space of those around you, people you genuinely care about because you see them beyond the “9-5”, causes a reaction that goes far beyond what mere “professionalism” and “ability” can bring. Those are good starting points, but like the DNA we are born with, they are changed by where we live to make us truly who we are: unique, individual, priceless expressions of a place shared with others both like us and not. If you don’t live in it – you’re just a tourist. Passing through on gridded planning paper.

  6. I know several City police department officers who live as far as Fauquier County and Waldorf and St. Marys in Maryland that patrol our area whom I associate with often. These men and women are very dedicated and their choice to live outside the city are for many reasons but one of the biggest reasons several have stated to me is that financially, they cannot afford to live in a ‘nice’ home in the city or raise their families in the city. Overall, I find that to be a true statement. The average home in our neighborhood runs at least $700,000 and up and I cannot think of at least one of my neighbors who have brought their homes in the last seven to ten years working in the public sector. There are a few affordable areas on the west end of town and on the northern end close to Potomac Yard but it is still expensive unless you make a salary of at least $120,000 and up. Should it matter that I live in Alexandria but work in the private sector for a business which strictly focuses on DC? I am just as dedicated as any DC resident would be. This argument is very petty much like many of the other issues which pop up from time to time in our growing town. There are many bigger fish to fry but I just wanted to weigh in and place my opinion and 2cents on this issue.

  7. Willa $400,000 is very affordable within Alexandria and a near steal and probably most government employees who work for our city could afford it. There are also several rental units are available as well. Those employees just want the big house and yard so they look elsewhere but it is my opinion those employees should rent here rather than move somewhere else or pay $400,000 which is very affordable in this market for a small home and work their way up to a larger home. It is not about being qualified there are probably many residents who are qualified and care more. Does Alexandria have the lowest percentage of employees who live in the place where they work? Alexandria is very affordable if you are willing to sacrifice so do not get me on they can’t afford a $400,000 or even $500,000 property in the city.

    • You must come from wealth. While 400k is a comparative “steal” for Alexandria, I’m not sure how you figure that a government worker can afford that. A mortgage on 400k is upwards of $2750 a month. Assuming a planner makes 80k a year woking for the City (which is higher than most of the employess of TES and planning make) that would mean a takehome amount of approximately 4k a month. That leaves 1300$ a month for food, utilities, and any other expenses. God forbid they have a child and have daycare expenses.

      thank you for offering your opinion on how these “workers” should rent in the City or own a smaller house. Your post clearly shows that you are in a class above. Can you please tell me where within the DMV area you can buy a “Big” house for 400k? You clearly havent looked at real estate listings for Alexandria. I challange you to find a home that is for sale anywhere 400k. Even the rent on a 2 br is above 2000$

      I live in the city, i recently worked for the City of DC which pays 30% more than the City of Alexandria. My wife and I were barely able to survive. Please dont tell me that “they” can afford a half million dollar house. Clover/College Park/Oldtown/Rosemont/Beverly Hills/Del Ray are some of the richest populations in the DC area.

      I find your post completely out of touch.

  8. Residency isn’t a “moot point,” as the city manager so cavalierly points out. It is as important as professionalism and ability It is a good idea to have a balance of urban planners from outside as well as those who claim Alexandria as their
    home. Assuming they have some semblance of conscience, and their decisions are not all based on “cha-ching” having this mixture provides an element of “reality checks” in the event that one side, or the other loses objectivity.