Fairfax County to set standards for housing in Dulles Airport noise path

Airplane in flight (via John McArthur/Unsplash)

Fairfax County is clearing the way for more residential development in land just east of Dulles International Airport.

A proposed airport noise policy would amend the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan to permit new housing in approximately 2,300 acres of the Sully District, primarily around Chantilly, that are exposed to higher levels of airplane noise than currently allowed.

The county will launch the public engagement portion of its effort with two virtual open houses — one at 7 p.m. today (Thursday) and another at 11 a.m. on Saturday (Jan. 29).

Initiated by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on July 28, 2020, the goal of the amendment is to “enhance the county’s economic development opportunities” and add housing in a part of the county still dominated by older office and industrial buildings, according to a white paper on the proposal.

While the airport noise policy focuses on the Dulles area, putting it in the comprehensive plan would establish general standards for developers to account for aircraft-related noise levels, county staff told the board at a land use committee meeting on July 21, 2020.

“We think it’s important that the board look at this as a countywide policy, get it in the comprehensive plan so that it’s there, it’s available, people understand it,” Department of Planning and Zoning Director Barbara Byron said.

The alternative would be to make noise mitigation a condition for getting individual projects approved through the county’s zoning process, an approach that would be more unpredictable and challenging, according to Byron.

“We can’t stop some of the revitalization and activity from occurring in that area, nor should we,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “We need economic development. We need housing. We know…how many units we are behind demand, which is a direct input into affordability.”

The comprehensive plan currently does not recommend residential development in areas with over 60 weighted decibels of day-night average sound levels (DNL), defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as a metric for a person’s cumulative exposure to sound over a 24-hour period.

The amendment proposes allowing residential uses in areas that experience 60 to 65 decibels. The only part of the county where that standard currently applies is around Dulles, based on airport noise contours developed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in 1993 and adopted by the county in 1997.

The proposed airport noise policy addresses areas in blue in the Dulles International Airport noise contours map (via Fairfax County)

The county hasn’t adopted noise contours for the Davison Army Airfield on Fort Belvoir, and it’s not within MWAA’s 60 to 65-decibel contour for Washington National Airport.

As Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith noted to FFXnow, the county already has some residential development within the 60-65 DNL contour.

Despite some vocal community opposition, the Board of Supervisors approved two new neighborhoods in November 2020 after amending the comprehensive plan a year earlier to permit residential development in Westfields, known as Land Unit J of the Dulles Suburban Center.

The approvals came with some noise mitigation requirements related to construction materials and notifying potential homeowners of the airport’s proximity, according to Smith.

The proposed airport noise policy will align the rest of the Dulles area with Land Unit J and create uniformity between the county’s comprehensive plan and its zoning ordinance, which was updated just last year, Smith says.

It would also bring the county in line with other jurisdictions across the country with international airports, including Loudoun County, which permits residential uses in the Dulles 60-65 DNL contours.

“This isn’t anything new or different,” Smith said. “The FAA says that residential is not compatible when you get over 65, but they don’t have any restrictions below that.”

While the county hopes to encourage more residential and mixed-use development in the Dulles area, Smith doesn’t anticipate a huge influx of new housing if the amendment is approved.

“With the exception of Land Unit J of the Dulles Suburban Center, most of the residential uses currently anticipated by the Plan within the Board adopted DNL 60-65 noise contours have been developed and are generally stable with limited opportunities for further residential development,” the county’s white paper says.

Photo via John McArthur/Unsplash

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