Our View: Pay attention to proposed zoning changes

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Mayor Justin Wilson and incoming city council members take the city’s new ethics pledge during the Jan. 2 swearing in ceremony at T.C. Williams High School. (Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein)
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City staff have reviewed many of Alexandria’s zoning ordinances, and changes to those ordinances have started making their way onto dockets for city council’s consideration.

At Saturday’s public hearing, council passed several zoning modifications, including changes to landscaping requirements and increased height allowances for houses. The changes also allow for greater density in housing developments in exchange for dedicated affordable housing units.

Generally, we think periodic reviews of Alexandria’s various ordinances are a good idea, since times change, the city changes and our zoning and other local laws should be as relevant as possible. But we also think zoning changes should be made carefully and cautiously – and with as much transparency as possible.

When city leaders take a holistic look at an aspect of life in Alexandria, such as zoning requirements, those leaders need to articulate their overarching vision for the changes, if there is one. Then residents need the opportunity to weigh in on that larger vision as well as the particulars of each recommendation.

Holistically speaking, we are supportive of changes that aid individual homeowners, or owners of existing businesses and buildings, so long as those changes don’t harm Alexandria’s historic fabric or the livability of their neighbors. For instance, allowing residents to more easily modify their homes, or businesses to use signage that better engages customers, are good changes that affirm private property rights.

We’re less supportive, however, of changes that aid developers and, in doing so, infringe on the livability of existing residents.

Raising the height limit so a homeowner can build onto their existing home is one thing. Making it easier for builders to put large, inappropriate spec houses on small lots that dwarf existing homes is quite another.

Much more troubling would be a revision to the city’s noise ordinance that allows for higher noise levels. While this was not proposed at Saturday’s public hearing, it’s purportedly in the pipeline.

Several new restaurants were recently granted permission for outdoor seating and music that, from the start, seemed likely to violate Alexandria’s noise ordinance. City staff and city councilors told concerned residents not to worry, that the restaurants would have to comply with Alexandria’s noise ordinance.

Likewise, neighbors of T.C. Williams High School who opposed lighting the football field that’s adjacent to their homes objected to lights, and a modified stadium sound system, partially on the grounds that noise at their property lines would exceed allowable limits.

It would be exceedingly cynical of our city leaders to have assured neighbors of both T.C. Williams and these new restaurants that the noise ordinance protects them from excessive noise – and then turn around and raise the maximum noise limit.

When talk turns to topics like zoning, the eyes of many people start to glaze over. After all, what could possibly be more boring than wading into the weeds of technical land-use issues?

Residents who are concerned about Alexandria’s livability, particularly in Del Ray and Old Town, should pay attention as zoning changes are proposed.

Many zoning changes are innocuous, and some will even be helpful. But others, particularly those adopted at the expense of Alexandria’s neigh- borhoods, should be vigorously opposed. Raising the allowable noise level would fall in that category. It would not only be wrong – we need less noise in our lives, not more – but, worse, a breach of trust.

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