Planning and Zoning FAQs

Frequently asked questions about zoning services related to Planning Commission and development cases, historic preservation, home or property improvement, parking, permits, zoning, and others.

Page updated on Aug 30, 2021 at 11:13 AM

Planning Commission & Development Cases

  • What is the function of the Planning Commission?
    The Planning Commission is a seven member citizen board appointed by City Council to prepare a master plan for the City and to review land use applications, including requests for master plan amendments (MPAs), rezonings (REZs), Special Use Permits (SUPs), development site plans (DSPs or DSUPs), subdivisions (SUBs), vacations (VACs) and encroachments (ENCs). The Commission takes final actions for approval on development site plans and subdivisions. On other applications, the Commission will vote to make a recommendation to the City Council.

    The Commission meets on the first Tuesday of every month at 7:30 in Council Chambers. The Department of P&Z provides staff support for the Planning Commission, providing staff reports and administrative management of cases and the hearing docket.

  • What is the difference between a DSP and a DSUP?
    The two types of development applications most common in the city are a Development Site Plan (DSP) and a Development Special Use Permit (DSUP). A property owner must have an approved DSP or DSUP before building permits can be released.
    • DSP: Development Site Plan A development site plan, or DSP, is a request to develop a site by-right in compliance with existing Zoning Ordinance requirements. The most common requests for a DSP include requests to construct 3 or more dwelling units, a new building or addition that exceeds 3,000 square feet, or to build 5 or more parking spaces. Only the Planning Commission hears a request for a DSP.
    • DSUP: Development Special Use Permit A development site plan with an SUP, or DSUP, is simply a request for a development site plan that will not comply with specific zoning ordinance regulations. A DSUP requests the right to develop a property with relief from specific zoning ordinance requirements such as minimum parking requirements, building setbacks, or for increases in building height or square footage. An applicant requesting a DSUP approval must also meet a more stringent requirement by demonstrating that their project provides substantial public benefit before relief from zoning ordinance requirements are granted. Both the Planning Commission and City Council hear a request for a DSUP.
    A planner in the Development Division is assigned to each development proposal as the project manager and coordinates the review among other City departments. More information about the development review process can be found in our Development Review Process Brochure.

  • How can I find out more about new development?
    Please visit the online Planning and Development Viewer, an interactive map showing active development cases. For more information about a specific project, please call the office at 703.746.4666.

  • How can I provide input on a case before the Planning Commission or City Council?
    You may either speak at a Planning Commission hearing or submit your comments in writing. You must sign up to speak at the hearing no later than 3 hours prior to the beginning of the Planning Commission meeting. Written comments may be submitted online, or a comment form may be picked up and faxed to P&Z at 703.838.6393 or mailed to the address below. Your comment form must be received by 4:30 p.m. on the day of the hearing, when it will be distributed to Planning Commission members. You are also welcome to bring documents to the hearing to pass out to Planning Commission members. If the comment form is received 10 days before the hearing, it will be mailed out with the staff reports. It is strongly encouraged that you submit comments before the day of the hearing, in order for city staff and Planning Commission members to more 

    The Alexandria City Council welcomes public input on matters of concern to the community. To speak at a meeting of City Council, go to the docket for that meeting.  If the meeting will include an opportunity for public comment, there will be a link at the top of the docket to register to speak.
  • How can I view staff reports on existing cases?
    Staff reports are available for public viewing 10 days before the case hearing. They are available online or in hard copy from the Permit Center.
  • How else can residents get involved in the planning process?

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Property Development / Home Improvement

  • I want to redevelop my property. Can I do it?
    A property may be developed (or redeveloped) according to zoning ordinance regulations, which govern issues such as land use, property area, height, square footage, building setbacks, and parking, and other regulations. Each development proposed must comply with zoning ordinance regulations for the zone in which the property is located. A property may be redeveloped “by-right” (in compliance with zoning ordinance regulations), or a property may be developed with modifications or variances requesting relief from zoning ordinance requirements. Check the Zoning Ordinance or call the Department of Planning and Zoning (703.746.4333) to find out about zoning regulations for a specific zone. 
  • What is my property zoned?
    In order to get zoning and map information for your parcel (in addition to numerous other categories of information), you can access the GIS Parcel Viewer and enter your address. You can view the Zoning Ordinance  for specific zoning regulations. You may also contact the Department of Planning and Zoning for help anytime Monday through Friday 8am to 5pm at 703.746.4333.

  • What are the regulations for:
    • Building a new addition to my house? You may want to begin by calling the Permit Center to discuss your proposed addition and the applicable zoning classification of the property and the required setbacks, height, open space and floor area ratio. To determine the zoning of your property online, go to our GIS Parcel Viewer. You need to complete and submit the Floor Area and Open Space Computations Form along with a copy of your Plat to P&Z. You will also need to contact the Code Enforcement Bureau to fulfill their permit requirements. 
    • Building a shed?  Please consult Section 7-202(B)(4) of the Zoning Ordinance as well as the Department of Code Administration. In general, a building permit is not required for a shed less than 250 square feet. Sheds that are 65 square feet (for semi-detached homes and townhouses) and 100 square feet (for single-family homes) may be built up to the side and rear property lines. Larger sheds must comply with the applicable setback and open space requirements as delineated in the Zoning Ordinance. BAR approval is required for sheds built in the Historic Districts. Please call 703-746-4333 for additional guidance.
    • Putting up a new fence?  Please consult the following sections of the Zoning Ordinance or call the Permit Center for additional assistance at 703.746.4333.BAR approval is required for fences built in the Historic Districts.  Please call 703.746.3833 for additional guidance.
    • Finishing my basement?  In general, yes. However, there are some restrictions you’ll need to consider. Please contact the Permit Center (703.746.4333) and the Department of Code Administration (703.746.4200) to discuss.

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Historic Preservation

  • Are all of the City’s historic districts regulated?
    No. Only the Old and Historic Alexandria District and the Parker-Gray District are regulated. No approval from a City architectural review board is needed for changes to structures in the other historic districts. The City does have a number of historic or architecturally important structures which are designated 100-year-old buildings and are subject to regulation. These buildings are governed by the Old and Historic Alexandria Board of Architectural Review.
  • Do I need a Certificate of Appropriateness? How do I obtain one?
    A Certificate of Appropriateness is required for all new construction and exterior alterations which are within an historic district and are visible from a public right of way, including those visible from public streets and alleys, waterways, and parks. A Permit to Demolish is required for all demolition or encapsulation over 25 square feet, regardless of visibility. Certificate applications are available here. Completed applications and supporting materials should be submitted to BAR Staff. The Boards hold regular public hearings to review applications and determine appropriateness. Hearing schedules, deadlines, and filing fees for applications can be obtained from the BAR web page or by calling the Planning & Zoning office.
  • Do I need to attend my Board of Architectural Review public hearing?
    Yes. You or your representative must attend the public hearing on your project. While the Board can take action on the application without the applicant being present, it is the policy of the Boards to defer consideration of an application when the applicant is not present. If you decide to send a representative to attend the hearing for you, you should make sure that the individual is familiar with the case and is able to make decisions for you.
  • Do I need to show my project plans to neighbors in my historic district?
    While not required, we suggest that you show your plans to your neighbors early in the design process. You are responsible for sending out written notice to the adjacent property owners, inviting them to speak in favor or in opposition to your project at the public hearing. With residents living in close proximity to one other, it is important to keep your neighbors informed of your plans. In addition to helping maintain peace between neighbors, having neighbor support for your project eases the approval process and subsequent construction.
  • Do I need Board of Architectural Review approval for the work I’m planning on doing on my house?
    P&Z Historic Preservation staff will assist you in determining if your location is within one of the City’s historic districts and whether you will need BAR approval. Click here to see a map of the City’s Historic Districts. In general, historic district regulations pertain to the external appearance of the building. All exterior changes made to the building will go through a design review public hearing before the Board of Architectural Review.
  • How can I find out if my property is within an historic district?
    Consult the map or call us at 703.746.3833.
  • How do I appeal a decision of the Board of Architectural Review?
    Appeals to City Council must be filed within 14 days of the BAR decision. The application, along with a filing fee, must be submitted to the City Clerk’s office. A decision by the BAR may be appealed by the applicant or by 25 property owners within the corresponding historic district.
  • How do I provide comments on a neighbor’s application to the Board of Architectural Review?
    The primary way to provide comments is to speak at the public hearing. Following the applicant’s presentation, the BAR Chairman will open the discussion to the public. Speaker forms are not required for BAR hearings. Another option is to provide written comments to the Board. Letters should be submitted to BAR Staff by 5 pm on the Thursday prior to the public hearing.
  • How do I submit an application to the Board of Architectural Review?
    Completed applications must be submitted to BAR staff by 5 pm on the filing deadline. Applications should be accompanied by 3 paper sets of all supporting materials, one digital copy, and the filing fee. To determine what materials are required for your project, please consult the Design Guidelines or contact BAR staff at 703.746.3833. Although the use of professional designers is not required, drawings must accurately portray the project. Incomplete applications will not be processed.
  • How long does the Board of Architectural Review approval process take?
    After staff determines that a submitted application is complete, a hearing will take place generally 30 days after the filing deadline. Most applications are approved at the hearing; however, the Board may defer the application for restudy.
  • How many historic districts are in the City?
    Alexandria has seven historic districts: Fairlington, Old and Historic Alexandria, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Parker-Gray, Parkfairfax, Rosemont, and Town of Potomac. Only two of these historic districts are regulated by the City through the Boards of Architectural Review: Old and Historic Alexandria and Parker-Gray.
  • What are the Boards of Architectural Review?
    The Old and Historic Alexandria BAR and the Parker-Gray BAR are seven-member committees appointed by the City Council and empowered to regulate changes that affect exteriors of structures in their respective historic districts.
  • What are the different actions taken by the Boards of Architectural Review?
    The Boards may recommend approval of the application as submitted, approval with changes to the application, deferral of the application for restudy, or denial of the application. In the rare cases where the Board denies an application, the same case cannot be heard by the Board for a period of one year.
  • What is the Board of Architectural Review looking for in a project?
    Generally the Board is looking for projects which are sensitive to the historic character of the building and its surroundings, use traditional building materials, and comply with the recommendations of the Design Guidelines and other approved policies.
  • What should I expect at a Board of Architectural Review public hearing?
    After BAR staff has announced your case, the Chairman will ask you if you would like to make a presentation or answer questions. You are not required to make a presentation. It is highly recommended that you read and become familiar with the recommendations in the staff report prior to the discussion of your case. Staff reports are generally available online and in the P&Z office on the Friday prior to the public hearing. Additional hard copies are available outside of Council chambers at the public hearing.
  • Who serves on the Boards of Architectural Review?
    The Parker-Gray Board members and OHAD Board members are residents of Alexandria who are appointed by City Council. Any interested party may apply to serve on the Board. Two of the seven Board members must be architects. Each Board member serves a 3-year term. After the term expires, the member must reapply to the Board. Board vacancies are advertised through the Communications & Public Information Office.

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  • How do I determine the parking requirements for my site?
    P&Z staff will assist you in determining the specific parking requirements for your property. Requirements vary depending on the type of use and location of your property within the city. See Parking Standards for New Development Projects for updated information regarding parking requirements in the City of Alexandria.  

    If you determine that your site cannot meet the parking requirements for its particular use, you may apply for an SUP for a parking reduction. The process is the same as the SUP process. 

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  • Do I need a Special Use Permit (SUP)?
    Typically, an SUP is required for businesses such as restaurants, beauty salons, fitness studios, auto repair, child care centers, dry cleaners, or other businesses that need special review because they have the potential to create noise, odors, fumes, pollution or significant parking impacts. The process is designed to ensure that potentially affected neighbors are informed of and provided an opportunity to comment on the proposed business. The zoning of the subject property determines uses that are permitted with an SUP. To view the zoning, go to the GIS Parcel Viewer. To view the permitted uses (with or without an SUP) go to the Zoning Ordinance. You may also call P&Z staff for assistance in determining if an SUP is required.

    If your business does require an SUP, you must complete an application checklist and file an SUP application with P&Z detailing how the business will operate. The applicant must also provide written notice to nearby property owners. This Notice Requirements document provides detailed information regarding how applicants must provide written notice. Your application will be heard at two public hearings: one before the Planning Commission, which makes a recommendation of denial or approval to the City Council, followed by one before the City Council. The City Council makes the final decision. Generally, it takes up to two or three months to review and process your SUP application to the public hearings. The hearing schedule and deadlines are available online. Applications received in April and May will be heard in September since the City Council does not meet in July or August.

  • Will I need building permits?
    Before any construction or utility work can be done at your new business location, you must obtain the necessary permits for the work you need to do. A variety of permits exist for the different types of work you may be doing, including: construction, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and sign permits. In addition, if there is a sprinkler system in you building, you may also need to obtain a fire protection system permit. Some businesses will also require fire prevention permits. Contact the Office of Building and Fire Code Administration (703.746.4200) to determine the permits you will need.

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  • Do I need zoning approval for my new business?
    Yes. Depending on the type of business you are establishing and your location, there are different types of approvals needed. These may include zoning review, a special use permit, Board of Architectural Review approval, or a sign permit. The Department of Planning and Zoning handles all of these reviews and approvals.

  • How do I file a complaint or request a zoning inspection?

    Please use Alex 311 to report a compliant and schedule an inspection.  

  • How do I know if my type of business if permitted in a particular location?
    A planner at the Permit Center in City Hall will assist you in determining if your type of business is appropriate under the zoning code for the area in which you want to locate. Staff can also review with you any zoning conditions, parking requirements, or other types of approvals that may be required.
  • Do I need a variance?
    A resident must request a variance if a proposed alteration does not comply with the zoning regulations. In order to secure a variance, the resident must prove that compliance with the zoning regulation presents a legal hardship. Please discuss your situation with the Permit Center staff by calling 703.746.4333. You will need to fill out an application for a variance, pay a fee, provide written notice to adjoining and facing property owners, and attend a Board of Zoning Appeals hearing. 

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  • What are the regulations regarding signs?
    All signs are reviewed and approved with a sign permit, which can be applied for at the Department of Code Administration. Three agencies will review your sign permit. P&Z will look at the size and design of signs. Code Enforcement will look at the structural details, such as the method of attaching a sign to a wall or the base of a freestanding sign. Transportation & Environmental Services will ensure that there are no pedestrian or car safety issues that would result from the proposed sign.

  • What is the long-range plan for my area?
    To determine the Small Area in which your neighborhood is located, go to the GIS Parcel Viewer. We are currently in the process of making the City’s Master Plan and Small Area Plans available electronically on the web. Until that time, please contact the Department if you would like to view a copy here in the office. In addition, the Neighborhood Planning and Community Development Division of P&Z conducts neighborhood planning initiatives to complement the Master Plan.

  • Where can I get a plat of my property?
    The Department of Planning and Zoning does not keep individual property plats on record. A plat is usually included with your deed at settlement when you purchase the property. You can contact your settlement company or have the property re-surveyed. 

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For more information, please call the Department of Planning and Zoning 703.746.4666.