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

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.