Virginia Supreme Court tosses "Zoom" zoning changes

There is no short-cut to good government:

The decision came after a group of Fairfax residents filed a county circuit court challenge to the legality of the zoning update that, among other things, made it easier for homeowners to rent their converted basements. The circuit court dismissed the residents’ claims, prompting their appeal to the Supreme Court.

“Everything about the history of Z-Mod suggests that the adoption of Z-Mod could have waited 22 days, weeks, or months without throwing the County’s operations into even minor distress let alone chaos,” the Supreme Court’s ruling said, using the county’s abbreviation for the zoning overhaul.

I ran numerous public meetings during the height of the Pandemic, masks required, and safe distancing for Board members and the public. That meant that half the Board occupied the front row of audience seating, with only about 25% of other seats available for the public. It was a pain in my fourth point of contact, but it could be done. These are some of the changes voted on virtually in Fairfax:

Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday made it easier for residents to rent converted basements or “in-law” units, an effort to create more affordable housing that homeowners’ groups argued would ruin the suburban character of Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction.

In a 7-to-3 vote, the county’s Board of Supervisors lifted restrictions on “accessory living units” on properties featuring single-family homes that had limited the units to renters who are either older than 55 or have a disability.

The change, part of a series of amendments the board adopted Tuesday to upgrade the county’s 42-year-old zoning ordinance, aligns Fairfax with surrounding localities that don’t have age restrictions for those types of homes. It also streamlines the approval process, lowering the cost for would-be landlords to a few hundred dollars instead of the several thousand it took to get a special-use permit — a process that also involved hearings before the county Board of Zoning Appeals.

First let me say, I personally support most (if not all) of the changes they made. Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are not a panacea for affordable housing, but they are legitimate elements of a broader plan. And each ADU puts a little bit of pressure on the existing renting market to keep rents down. It may be extremely limited pressure, but it is there. And slashing the costs of the government permits, for both ADUs and domestic businesses like hair salons and such, is the right thing to do. Permitting for homeowners should not be used as a blunt tool to discourage people from trying to make ends meet, or to generate revenue for the municipality in question.

All that being said, this wasn't just a tweak of current ordinances, it was a massive overhaul. And one that should have been debated in a real-life public forum, not a virtual one. From the OP:

With worries over possible coronavirus infections high before vaccines were widely available, governing bodies across the state turned to Zoom and other virtual meeting formats during the early part of the pandemic to keep their governments functioning.

In some cases, that adaptation may have left out residents who would have otherwise weighed in on local issues in person, said Megan H. Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a group that advocates government transparency.

For local officials, “it was uncharted territory; they were trying to figure things out in a very compressed time and had to deal with what existing law did or didn’t say,” Rhyne said.

Not trying to spark another NIMBY vs YIMBY debate, but for any local government officials or employees reading this, you need to take care when deciding on "reasonable accommodations" when dealing with the public. Just because you are familiar with 21st Century tech, it doesn't automatically follow that everybody (or even a large majority) of citizens are. And meeting the bare minimum requirements of notification of an upcoming zoning/ordinance change says more about your confidence (or lack of) said change than you think.

If what you're trying to do cannot stand up under scrutiny; achieve the votes you need after a vigorous debate, including all interested parties, then maybe going back to the drawing board is a good idea.



You have a good point

Technology is changing lots of things when it comes to governing, public input, etc. Erring on the side of "more and better input" is almost always a good thing.

I wonder if the staff even thought about the risks of virtual input ... or if they simply chose to use pandemic practices because they've worked for other things over the past couple of years.

In any case, it's back to the drawing board. Opponents of the change will be energized.

PS Gerrymandering

If a court can throw out public policy because it was made on a Zoom call without adequate public notice or input, what does that say when you have an entire legislature of usurpers who gerrymandered their way into the majority? Or who vote on legislation without reasonable notice to the public?

They're now working on a bill

that would allow lawmakers to issue special "fast passes" to certain reporters or lobbyists to gain entrance to the Legislature. Which begs the question, what happens to the ones who don't get these fancy passes? Delayed access, or access to a limited area?

No good can come of it.