City Council unanimously adopts ZFH in late-night vote

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City Council unanimously adopts ZFH in late-night vote
From left to right: Karl Moritz, planning director; Justin Wilson, mayor; and Amy Jackson, vice mayor.
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

Just after midnight Tuesday, City Council voted unanimously to adopt the “Zoning for Housing/Housing for All” master plan and text amendments after a nearly four hours-long discussion between Council and city staff.

After regular business was conducted – voting on meeting minutes, discussions about grant applications and recognizing graduates of the City Academy – Council discussed ZFH with city staff spearheaded by Nancy Williams, assistant planning director, and Karl Moritz, planning director.

At the start of the docket item, Mortiz and Williams presented information to correct the record on what they said were misstatements made at the November 18 public hearing about the issue. These corrections included studies of the infrastructure impact on the city, studies on how zoning reforms can positively impact affordability and information on removing the word “family” in the ordinance.

After these discussions, Christina Zechman Brown, deputy city attorney, laid out the guidelines for the subsequent votes. She said it was recommended Council vote on the master plan, then the text amendments and housing policy.

Zechman Brown also said the language that was approved would be reflected in the implementation ordinance – how the city will carry out the ordinance – that they will receive next month.

Mayor Justin Wilson led the discussions about each text amendment, as there were no questions on the master plan. At the presentation of each amendment, many Councilors either shared their thoughts, asked questions of city staff or both.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson posed a much-asked question by residents when the discussion came to single-family zoning changes: Why didn’t the city send out physical mailers across the city to notify residents about the potential zoning changes?

Moritz said instead of presenting information, the Planning and Zoning department wanted to engage the city residents in a discussion.

“We modeled our community engagement strategy on a goal of inducing discussion and … engendering two-way, multi-way conversations about the topics,” Moritz said. “In spite of our using the traditional methods of getting out the word, I feel that we’ve gotten so many more comments … than we usually do.”

Jackson continued to press Moritz, stating many older residents are not going to check the city’s website for updates; rather, they likely would prefer a mailer to post on the refrigerator.

“A lot of the older people, they wait for things to come in the mail,” Jackson said. “I think we’ve missed a huge opportunity to hear from even more people. We didn’t reach everybody when we should’ve been, in multiple languages, to make sure they’re a part of the conversation, too.”

Jackson then stated that she would prefer if the single-family zoning aspect of ZFH was deferred for a couple of months. Her statements elicited some claps in the chambers, which were quickly silenced by Jackson herself and Wilson.

Councilor Canek Aguirre pushed back against Jackson, stating this is a slippery slope for the city. He commended staff for the amount of outreach done on the issue and expressed frustration with city residents: “We need folks to meet us at least a percentage of the way.”

“Are we going to say that we’re going to send out a mailer for every zoning amendment we do?” Aguirre asked. “From my 10 plus years of experience … I’ll tell you what happens to these mailers: They get thrown away, they get ignored.”

Before Council voted on the text amendments, Councilor Kirk McPike took a few moments to address Alexandrians as a whole. Subsequently, each Councilor, Jackson and Wilson shared anecdotal stories.

“Whether you agree with what we do on these questions tonight or not, you are heard, you are listened to,” McPike said. “I value the opinion of every Alexandrian on matters such as these because Alexandria is all of our home, and we all love our home.”

“We’re talking past each other on this issue,” Wilson said. “I think these proposals are good ones and move the city forward and that’s why I’m willing to support them.”

Jackson motioned to exclude the single-family zoning amendment for deferral, which was seconded by Councilor John Taylor Chapman. The motion failed with two in favor, five opposed.

In an interview with the Times after the vote, Peter Sutherland, director of events and an Alexandria lead for YIMBYs of NoVA, said the organization is excited about the unanimous passage of the master plan and text amendments.

“It was really particularly helpful in the conversation to see … a table of the potential net new units to come over the next 10 years across all of the different components, and that 30 to 52% of [the 2,800 new units] are projected to be dedicated affordable housing,” Sutherland said. “We are really excited to see those projections.”

He said he was happy to see the discussion among Council on public engagement and hopes it can be improved in the future.

“It seemed clear … that they felt like they had learned a lesson about the way that some of the city’s residents wanted to be contacted in the future,” Sutherland said. “I anticipate there to be a bit more of a debate around when to send mailers for what purposes at what budget in the future.”

Sutherland also said he appreciated the rationale provided by each Councilor before the official vote was taken.

“It was interesting to hear the different lenses that they all took in terms of informing their own decisions,” Sutherland said. “I was really heartened to hear the stories of how teachers, first responders, nurses and service industry personnel … how they will be able to afford [homes here].”

Eric Wagner, a former planning commissioner for 22 years – and nine as its chair – said he was very disappointed with the vote.

“[I’m] just really, deeply disappointed,” Wagner said. “They acknowledged [outreach efforts were inadequate] and yet, not withstanding all of that, they went ahead and plowed forward and adopted the changes. And that, to me, was kind of shocking.”

Wagner said this vote will not help the dwindling trust Americans have for their government, but will worsen it.

“It is a real shame that here, we’re experiencing this firsthand in Alexandria,” Wagner said. “It just reinforced the notion that the public hearings and public comment sessions that were held … were all more or less pro forma.”

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