Manassas Park tries to shore up zoning rules

Having promised Belmont Station residents Sept. 17 they would not remain ignorant of their landscaping regulations, the Manassas Park City Council held a joint work session Monday night with the Planning Commission to consider city zoning regulations. The work session came just nine days after contractors on Digital Drive removed a strip of woods separating an industrial lot from Belmont Station townhouses.

Two days after trees behind Belmont Station were removed, members of the newly formed Belmont Residents to Save Belmont Station converged upon the Sept. 17 City Council meeting. A petition requesting changes to zoning regulations, among other issues, had been signed by 148 residents.

Monday night, City Planner Dan Painter brought suggestions for regulation revisions he had drafted after studying corresponding codes from Loudon and Fairfax counties and the city of Manassas. Some suggestions included:

– Credits given to developers who leave existing woodland undisturbed.

– Hire a horticulturalist to determine what existing woodland is practicible to save tree health and uneven landscape.

– Extending some buffer zone widths from 30 feet to 40 feet.

What seemed to surprise some planning commission members and city council members alike is the fact that recently zoned land with owners planning imminent changes will not fall under any new language added to the code.

“No zoning changes we make tonight will change what happens [on the eight parcels on Digital Drive,]” City Attorney Crowhurst said. “If land was recently rezoned, with proffers, they have a vested right.”

Doing so would “downsize” on property owners’ rights, which is prohibited by state law, Crowhurst said. Changes made to the city’s zoning codes now will only affect land that will be rezoned after the new code takes effect, or land that is presently unzoned.

However, Crowhurst said it is possible to insure that the remaining Digital Drive parcels have an undisturbed 30-foot buffer. City Council members voted at last week’s meeting to interpret language in the current code to mean that existing woodland in buffer zones must remain undisturbed.

Vice Mayor Kevin P. Brendel suggested that providing more explicit code could provide an example for developers who have already purchased land to follow, even though they aren’t legally bound by regulations enacted after they purchased the land.

“If you amend zoning ordinances, oftentimes developers will comply. They’re trying to be a good neighbor, as far as I’ve seen,” Crowhurst said.

The 81 acres on Digital Drive were all recently rezoned, one parcel is under development, and Painter anticipates receiving plans shortly on two more parcels. Crowhurst said that contractors in those positions have a vested interest in their properties.

Belmont Station residents had been separated from the 81-acre tract of industrial zoned land on Digital Drive by a strip of woods. Then Eagle Vending, major partner owner of one of the eight parcels subdividing the industrial zone, submitted plans for a 45,000-square-foot warehouse to Painter, which are permissable under the existing code. The developer planned to slope the 30-foot buffer to an even height with a proposed parking lot.

“I pushed and pushed and pushed for the developer to leave [existing] trees,” Painter said. “Since there was nothing in the code, I felt whatever I could retain was a victory of some sort.”

Painter said there is a 12 to 15 foot wide strip of trees remaining of the buffer zone remaining between parcel three of industrial land and Belmont Station. The remainder of the 30 foot buffer zone will be replaced with new trees.

Painter, who has been city planner for a year, said that Manassas Park’s current landscaping regulations are “not nearly as effective” as other areas.

Painter said that he had drafted more extensive landscape regulations modeled after Prince William County’s regulations and submitted them to the planning commission’s April meeting, but “they didn’t go anywhere.” Members were concerned that developers wouldn’t want to spend the money necessary to conform with the proposed regulations.

At press time, the work session was ongoing, considering new language to the zoning codes. Any proposed changes must be presented to a public forum before they can be voted into effect.