Northern Virginia Land Development Services

The Land Development Process

Land Development is the process by which the current or permitted use of a property is altered. In Virginia, the authority to regulate this process has been granted to the localities in order to "...encourage the local governments to improve public health, safety, convenience and welfare of its citizens ... and that the growth of the community be consonant with the efficient and economical use of public funds."

Generally, the land development process includes four stages: zoning; subdivision; site plan and permitting. Zoning (which includes special exception or use) is a legislative stage established at the discretion of the local governing body. The remaining stages are ministerial and may be enforced by court mandate when an applicant has complied, or is ready, willing, and able to comply with local requirements. The process may include any or all of these stages. While questions regarding specific procedures or policies for land development should be directed to appropriate county or municipal officials, the following is a brief summary of each stage in Virginia.

*Code of Virginia, Title 15.1, Chapter 11, Article 1.

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Site Plan



Zoning is the classification of land into districts by the legislative action of the local governing authority. Regulations are established for each zoning district regarding building and structure designs and placement, and the permitted uses of the land, buildings and structures. These regulations are specified in the local jurisdiction's zoning ordinance. The zoning ordinance may also provide for additional compatible uses, subject to the approval of the local authority. This is known as a special use, special exception or conditional use. One example of a special use might be allowing for the location of a church within an area zoned for residential use.

A property owner may either develop his or her property in accordance with the approved zoning (by-right) or may choose to pursue a rezoning of the property. Rezoning applications are usually made for a more intense use, in order to make the property more profitable or marketable. Therefore, approvals are subject to the discretion of the governing body in order to assure the protection of the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. Developers often make voluntary contributions, known as proffers (or conditions, in the case of a special use), in order to offset any negative impacts resulting from the rezoning. Proffers are generally made in the form of contributions of real estate or capital for the construction of public improvements or projects, and are above and beyond what can be required in the zoning ordinance. Some examples of proffers are: roads, schools, libraries and fire stations. Property owners may sometimes propose rezoning their property to a less intense use. This is commonly referred to as down-zoning. Reducing a tax burden or increasing the marketability of the property are two common reasons to down-zone.

Disputes over the interpretation of local ordinances, appeals for variances from the ordinances, applications for special exceptions, and interpretations of district boundaries are decided by a board of zoning appeals (BZA). The BZA is made up of either five or seven residents appointed by the circuit court who serve five-year terms. In Virginia, zoning approvals are made by the local governing bodies. Once the appropriate zoning is in place, the property owner may elect to proceed to either the subdivision or the site plan stage of development.


>A subdivision may be described as the division of a parcel of land into two or more parcels. Provisions for subdividing property are covered in a locality's subdivision ordinance and are administered and enforced by the governing body, generally through its planning commission. Land may be subdivided for many reasons, such as: improving its marketability, increasing its development potential or allowing for the transfer of property to family members.

Local ordinances may provide for a preliminary plat to be submitted for tentative approval prior to the submission of the subdivision plat. The local agent designated to review the preliminary subdivision plat will forward the plat to any appropriate state and local agencies for review. The state agencies and designated agent then have statutory time frames in which to act on the preliminary plat.

Site Plan

The site plan provides the details of improvements to be made to a parcel of land. Site plan review is a ministerial process of the local governing body. Larger, more developed localities often have specific construction standards which are described in a construction or facilities manual. These standards are often defined to exceed minimum state requirements in order to address the specific needs of the locality. Those jurisdictions that do not have separate standards rely on the minimum standards established by the state or federal government. Preliminary subdivision plans are often of sufficient detail to serve the purposes of a site plan.

Permitting/ Bonding

Once an applicant has received all necessary approvals and is ready to begin construction, he or she needs to obtain permits. Depending on the nature of the work to be done, permits may be required by local, state or federal authorities. In Virginia, all work on, or connecting to, the system of state highways requires a land use permit issued by the Virginia Department of Transportation. The specific permitting provisions may be found in the VDOT Land Use Permit Manual. For work such as street tie-ins, private and commercial entrances, pavement widening and utility installation, application for the permit is made at the VDOT Residency Office in the county in which the work is to be performed. The approved site or construction plan showing work within the right-of-way becomes a part of the permit, and a guarantee fee, letter of credit, or bond is required to ensure the work is completed to the satisfaction of VDOT.

For more specific information concerning VDOT land use permits in Northern Virginia, you may contact the appropriate residency at the following addresses.

Arlington/Fairfax County

VDOT Fairfax Permits Section
4975 Alliance Drive
Fairfax, Virginia 22030

Loudoun County

VDOT Leesburg Residency
41 Lawson Road, S.E.
Leesburg, VA 20175

Prince William County

VDOT Manassas Residency
10228 Residency Road
Manassas, VA 20110


If the approved site or construction plan created a new public street to be state-maintained, there is a process involving both VDOT and the local governing body to transfer maintenance responsibility. That process is explained briefly in The Street Acceptance Process.

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Page last modified: Nov. 1, 2019