The Fairfax County Planning Commission has said "thanks, but no thanks," to the county planning staff's recommendations for changing the process Fairfax uses to update its comprehensive land-use plan.
Instead, after rejecting the staff's proposals, commission members decided to study the process themselves and make whatever changes, if any, they believe are necessary.
The staff had suggested various options to change the system, including setting aside a year for a study of existing land-use policies and zoning laws, replacing the three-year review cycle with a four-year review period, and giving increased emphasis to land-use changes sought by county officials or staff members.
Commissioners also rejected a timetable, proposed by staff, that would have forced them to act on changes in the long-standing process by early October.
A handful of the commission's members will head the panel's review. They are scheduled to meet Wednesday to start discussing the system for carrying out the annual review.
Sidney Steele, head of the county's planning department, proposed the changes that were rejected. The commissioners said they will work with planning staff members and may incorporate some of the staff's proposals into their final recommendations, which they hope to complete in December.
Fairfax officials and the county's plan-review process have been criticized harshly by some Fairfax residents, developers and county officials during the last eight months, a time when the county was bombarded with more than 350 challenges to the existing land-use plan.
Commission member Peter H. Brinitzer criticized changes proposed by Steele. "I don't like some of the things I see. We are basically talking about procedures and very little substantive changes," Brinitzer said.
Several commissioners voiced agreement with a memo written by planning commission staff member Barbara Lippa, saying that the short time proposed by the staff for consideration of the proposed changes in the review process did not allow for enough discussion. She urged the commission to reject what she called the staff's "knee-jerk reflex" in response to criticisms of the process. She said that, no matter what changes may be made, "time must be allowed to educate the public."
Several commission members opposed creation of a "blue-ribbon committee" of developers and residents that had been proposed by the staff to review the proposed changes.
"I don't feel any need for another committee," said Commissioner Rosemarie Annunziata. "I don't see the underlying rationale. I think it is something the commission can do itself."
However, Commissioner Tybelle Fasteau said she thought the process needs changing. She supported a staff proposal to set aside one year to review all existing policies and zoning ordinances. She called a staff proposal that would allow changes to the land-use plan every three months "absolutely impractical," saying, "The plan should be stable for at least a year."
Annunziata added, "We are talking about stability in our communities." She represents the Providence district, which includes part of the Tysons Corner area, Merrifield and Dunn Loring -- all areas that were targets of many proposed changes this year.
Fairfax officials make land-use decisions based on its comprehensive land-use plan. Under the process for changing that plan, anyone can nominate a tract of land for a change from one planning category to another.
During every third year, every proposed change in the plan must be heard by the planning commission. If the planning commission vetoes the change, no further action is taken. If the commission approves the change, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors holds public hearings on the proposal and then takes final action. This year was a third-year review.
In the intervening two years, limited reviews are conducted, and all proposed changes must meet strict criteria to win a planning commission hearing. In those years, task forces of citizens in each of the county's eight magisterial districts weed out proposed changes that do not meet the criteria.
In spite of the criticism staff and commissioners said they received this year when vigorous debate over controversial proposals often led to late-night, emotional public hearings, Annunziata said the process worked.
"The only thing that went wrong was that we were inundated with work," she said.
"The consciousness of citizens has been heightened this year," she said. "We deferred a lot of cases, but what is wrong with deferral as long as the necessary research is done?"
More than 75 items have been deferred. Staff members are now trying to schedule public hearings on those items, they said.
Commission Chairman George Lilly said too many of the applications filed this year read like rezoning applications rather than plan amendments. He said too many applications addressed the specifics of a proposed building rather than the need or justification for an overall change in an area's land-use designation.
The commissioners agreed that the planning staff had been overworked because of intense growth in Fairfax and the enormity of the plan review process.
"The staff was so stretched," said Commissioner John Thillmann. "Those people were devastated with work."