This Saturday, city councilors will hear a package of proposals by planning staff about ways to streamline the special use permitting process to make it easier for small businesses to get up and running in Alexandria.
Most of the changes, which expand the types of uses and businesses that are eligible for administrative review and approval by staff, are common sense efforts to streamline the process and are laudatory.
The effort, borne out of concerns following a number of local small businesses closing up shop in the early months of 2016, includes adding fast-casual restaurants to the list of businesses not required to receive full hearings by the planning commission and city council.
It also increases the cap on desired delivery vehicles eligible for administrative review, reduces the number of restaurant seats required to request delivery service, and tweaks rules governing child care homes and gyms.
These are all good changes to keep the city’s permitting rules competitive with other jurisdictions in attracting new businesses. But one proposal in the package, included not for final approval but to give staff guidance on how to proceed, raises a larger question of city council’s role in land use decisions and how city government operates as a whole:
Should city council weigh in on non-development special use permit applications, or should councilors delegate that authority to the planning commission through a proposed charter amendment to be sent to the Virginia General Assembly next year?
Business leaders are in favor of the measure, arguing it will cut down on two weeks of bureaucracy and red tape in what is currently a three-month review process. That saves time, gets a business’ doors open quicker, and can save thousands of dollars when you account for city fees, rent costs and attorney fees.
But residents and neighborhood organizations worry the change removes a crucial opportunity to state their support for, concerns about or opposition to any given project before city officials. And it would mean final decisions on many proposals would be made by appointed — not elected — officials, removing an aspect of account- ability to residents in the form of elections.
These are difficult competing interests to balance, and if the decision were being made this week, we likely would side with residents in the interest of greater government transparency and accountability.
But Alexandria Chamber of Commerce board chair-elect Dak Hardwick made an important point. How can city councilors truly devote the attention necessary for the development of strong and innovative policy when they spend around half their time discussing land use issues and the merits of individual business applications?
In order for city council to proceed on this matter, residents, business leaders and city officials must first have a broad conversation about the proposal, looking both at the details of the plan — like how to structure an appeals process that is not onerous on residents who feel aggrieved by an approval — and that broader question of how we as a city want our elected body to govern.
The answers could be as simple as finding a way to make an appeal to city council both easy for residents and provide a short turnaround for businesses waiting for final approval. Or it could be as seismic as making the planning commission an elected body.
There’s a long time between now and when the city formulates its legislative package to send to Richmond in late fall. Let’s start the discussion and see where it leads us.