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Fairfax County is considering a change to its zoning ordinance to encourage the development of efficiency apartments for low-income people, a type of housing that is relatively rare in the county.

While some efficiency units do exist in the county and they can be built under current zoning rules, the proposed zoning ordinance amendment represents a new use, said Donna Pesto, senior assistant to the Fairfax County zoning administrator and the lead staff member on the zoning revision.

It would allow the development of buildings housing three to 75 efficiency apartments, of which at least 80 percent are reserved for people earning less than 60 percent of area median income. Under current wage rates, that would mean most tenants couldn’t earn more than about $45,000 per year.

The county has been discussing this type of housing on and off for a decade. In 2003, they first began looking at single-room-occupancy housing models, a type of housing used to help transition single homeless adults out of homelessness by offering housing and supportive services.

Although the county took other steps to address its affordable housing challenges in the meantime, that proposal was never passed. The current proposal is a bit broader, and not solely focused on homeless individuals, Pesto said.

What has made the proposal somewhat contentious is where these units would be permitted. The proposed revision would allow the residential studios, as they are referred to in zoning language, to be built in most zoning districts in the county, except for a few agricultural and rural residential zoning districts.

“They put a multifamily use anywhere, and that doesn’t make sense,” said Rob Jackson, president of the Fairfax Federation of Civic Associations. “This is an intense use.”

In order for such apartment buildings to be constructed in any district, however, the landowner would need to obtain a special exception permit from the county. Obtaining a special exception requires a public hearing before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

One of the key elements the boards must find in approving a special exception is that the proposed use is compatible with surrounding development.

Another proposed requirement is that the buildings must be located on a collector street or major thoroughfare, which would rule out the heart of most single family neighborhoods in the county, according to Pesto. The reason for this is to ensure that the residents have easy access to public transportation.

The special exception could also consider proximity and safe pedestrian access to shopping.

Jackson said these are provisions the Federation believes are important.

“Let’s do this where it will succeed and not do it where it won’t,” he said.

One of the options that zoning staff have provided to the Planning Commission, which is conducting an extensive review of the proposal, is to explicitly prohibit the conversion of single family homes into studio apartments, which could alleviate one of the main concerns of civic groups.

Jackson said, in some parts of the county, there is concern that this could lead to a resurgence in illegal boarding houses in single family homes, except this time they wouldn’t be illegal.

The county had been doing a good job, through a special task force it created, in cracking down on illegal boarding houses.

“I’m getting the impression … that the county sort of slacked off on this and that has created a sense of distrust,” Jackson said.

The Planning Commission has had two introductory public meetings this month on the proposed zoning ordinance amendment. A special committee of the Planning Commission will have five meetings reviewing and tweaking the proposed ordinance over the next few months before it goes to a public hearing early next year.

“We want people to know that this is an ongoing process,” and they can still provide input, Pesto said.

The proposal originally had been on a faster track, with a public hearing scheduled in November, but that was slowed down due to the concerns of the federation and other community organizations.

Jackson said the federation was concerned that there had not been enough public outreach and he is not sure the current outreach plan will be enough.

However, he said, “it is much better than where it was.”

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com