Easing the Search For Land-Use Files

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006

For the average citizen, finding Fairfax County land-use records is often about as easy as crossing Tysons Corner at rush hour. Residents who want to learn about development projects in their communities can either trek to county offices and ask the staff there to hunt through files, or try to navigate the county's Web site, where a hard-to-use search engine provides access to a limited number of documents.

The searching could get easier, though, under a proposal introduced last week by Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). The proposal urges the county to consider vastly expanding the breadth of information available online and simplifying access to it. The board approved the creation of a task force to develop, over the course of this year, a plan to achieve such improvements.

"Land use has a jargon and mystique all its own, and we need to break through that, so that the average citizen can access, through technology, what's happening in the county, starting with your own neighborhood," Connolly said in an interview. "You're entitled to know what's planned and what might happen so that you can participate knowledgeably. That shouldn't be reserved for the mystical priesthood of those who can understand the process."

As it stands, residents can try to access rezoning applications through something called the LDSnet system on the county Web site ( http://ldsnet.fairfaxcounty.gov/ldsnet ), but that requires knowing case numbers for the applications, as well as knowing how to enter the number into the search engine. Even if they are able to view the applications, residents often find that many relevant materials, such as up-to-date records of developers' proffers for road or school improvements, are not included.

Missing entirely from the county Web site, meanwhile, are site plans and other records for "by-right" projects that developers can undertake without requesting a rezoning.

"It's quite an ordeal to go to the county and say, 'Is something on here?' unless you see ribbons on the trees," said Rebecca Cate, a community activist in the Providence District. "If you're very savvy and know the parcel number, you can call the county, and they can tell you what's going on."

Connolly's proposal envisions a day when residents can find on the county Web site "all relevant and useful information" about changes to the county's Comprehensive Plan, proposed rezonings and proposed site plans for by-right projects.

He suggests creating a "virtual library," organized geographically, of what has been approved but not yet built in the county. The chairman also proposes putting online background studies produced by county staff members, documents that are now buried in filing cabinets, showing what communities would be like under various development scenarios.

The push to improve access will start with a meeting later this month between Deputy County Executive David J. Molchany and officials from such departments as planning and zoning, public works and information technology. They are to determine what information is now accessible online and what additional information could be made available. The board will then appoint a task force to recommend improvements.

Citizen activists who have criticized the county's land-use process for a lack of transparency cheered Connolly's proposal and said they hoped officials would follow through on it. They cautioned, though, that county leaders need to do more to clarify the land-use approval process, including taking a more active role in improving communications between developers and neighbors on contentious projects.

"Any improvement is better than none," said Denise Rodgers, who edits the Providence District Council newsletter and said she often has trouble finding relevant information for it online. "But there's a long way to go in opening up information."

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