A developer's plan to build 57 town houses on the largest remaining undeveloped tract in Falls Church has encountered strong opposition from nearby residents, who argue that the project would bring unwanted congestion to their quiet neighborhood.
Ken Jennings, president of Jennings Properties Inc., has asked the city's Planning Commission to recommend a zoning change for a seven-acre parcel off East Jefferson Street to allow him to build the town house project.
The land is a wooded tract that stretches back from the road to Four Mile Run. Located just east of Washington Street (Rte. 29), the tract is owned by Jennings' family and is zoned for single-family detached houses.
"It's in the middle of a single-family neighborhood," said Judy Powell, who lives about two blocks from the site. "If this is rezoned, it will set a precedent. This is not a street issue; it's a city issue."
Jennings, however, has pointed out that the city's 1978 master plan calls for the site and area just west of it to be "general residence," a category allowing garden-style apartments and other low-rise apartment buildings. He has argued that his plan actually calls for lower density than the master plan would allow.
But at a recent hearing before the Planning Commission at which 40 residents spoke in opposition to the project, several speakers said the master plan is outdated and does not reflect what the citizens want.
Other opponents of the project say the document has not been used consistently.
"Our master plan has been changed many times," said Lillian Fry, who lives several blocks from the property.
"When it's convenient to follow it, the city government follows it, and when it's not convenient, the city government does not," Fry said, alluding to an incident two years ago when the City Council amended the plan to allow a town house development.
Last week, Jennings and Planning Commission members held a work session to go over the 57-unit proposal. A number of issues have emerged to complicate matters.
While the seven-acre site has been viewed by planners as an appropriate spot for town house development, it appears that a new city ordinance could restrict such development.
Planning Director Henry Bibber said city planners have long agreed that areas near commercial activity, major arterial streets and public transportation are appropriate for higher density residential development. Bibber said the master plan, reflecting that philosophy, calls for such development for the seven-acre site because of its close proximity to commercial Washington Street, I-66 and the East Falls Church Metro station.
But the city's 1984 Historic Ordinance, designed to protect old buildings, could prevent town houses from fronting on East Jefferson Street, Bibber acknowledged.
At least one house along the street has been designated historical property under the ordinance.
The house, at 215 E. Jefferson St., which is owned by Jennings' father, sits on the southern edge of the seven-acre site. Historical designation protects a structure from being torn down and dictates that buildings adjacent to it be compatible with the property.
Bibber said the ordinance could mean that only single-family houses could be built along East Jefferson Street.
"Whatever development occurs needs to be done in a compatible manner," he said.
Bibber added that he would not be surprised if Jennings, who has scheduled a second work session with the Planning Commission, will revise his proposal to include four or five single-family detached houses along the street with fewer town houses set back from the road.
Jennings said he asked for an additional work session, but declined to comment on any details.
Meanwhile, members of the city staff say development on the site would need to be closely coordinated with improvements to Four Mile Run, which periodically overflows. The city has made plans to rebuild the channel where the stream flows along the edge of the site. Bibber said the city would want to make those improvements before a proposed road to the town house project is built.
The Planning Commission is scheduled to take up the project again on Oct. 19.