Like many of his neighbors, Melvin H. Johnsrud believes there are ways to control development in Alexandria's West End. One of those ways, Johnsrud says, is to allow citizens to comment earlier in the city's review process of site plans for projects in their neighborhood.
A proposed revision in the site plan process calls for a developer to notify neighbors of a proposed project at the same time the site plan is filed in the city.
"It will put things out in the open. The citizens will be able to make their comments and let the developers know our reaction to their projects," said Johnsrud, president of the board of directors of Alexandria Knolls West Condominium.
A developer's site plan defines the scope of the project and includes information on everything from grading the tract of land to the size, height, shape and location of buildings to details on parking and traffic circulation around the proposed project.
In addition to representing condominium owners from the 190 units of Alexandria Knolls West, Johnsrud said he echoes the sentiments of a number of other residents living in the West End neighborhood around Duke Street and Edsall Road, including residents of Watergate at Landmark and the Olympus condominiums at Yoakum Parkway and Stevenson Avenue.
Johnsrud is one of a number of citizens, developers and city officials making up the Landmark/Van Dorn task force to change portions of the city's outdated master plan. Director of Planning and Community Development Sheldon Lynn heads the task force. In January, the group is expected to make final recommendations on land-use changes and rezoning in the West End area south of Holmes Run, the site of several controversial development projects in the last year.
Currently, owners of property within 300 feet of a proposed development are notified of a project after the planning department's site plan coordinating committee meets with the developer to air the city's concerns about the project.
"We generally got informed about a site plan five days before a planning commission public hearing," Johnsrud said.
Under the proposed revision, owners of property within 300 feet of the site would be informed of the site plan 25 working days before the meeting of the site plan coordinating committee. The coordinating committee would also include the developer and residents who might be affected, something not currently done. The practical effect of the changes is that citizens and developers could negotiate their differences before final approval is given by the Planning Commission's site plan approval committee.
"We don't expect to get our way all the time," Johnsrud noted. "I have found most developers are reasonable. Most will at least try to understand our point of view. [Certain issues] might be trivial for developers, but they're important to us," Johnsrud said.
Planning official Lynn said that the proposed changes in the site plan review process would have little effect on the development process.
Over the last five years, nine of 15 controversial site plans drew neighborhood opposition because of the intended use on the site, which the city cannot stop if the zoning is there, Lynn said. For example, last month West End citizens objected to Temple Motors setting up a car dealership next to a residential neighborhood, even though the land was zoned for commercial use.
Lynn, who says he, too, is frustrated with the site plan process, said only a change in Virginia law could give the city more power over land-use issues. In the upcoming Virginia General Assembly, the city will try to get the legal authority to reject site plans that adversely affect traffic in Alexandria, an issue of major concern to residents of Alexandria and Northern Virginia in general.
"If citizens think [site plan changes] will help them to be better informed, I'm all for it," Lynn said.
In some ways it seems misleading to say that citizen input into the site plan process can radically change the outcome, Lynn noted. "We have warned them that [the changes] won't make them happy. It may lead them ultimately to be more frustrated."