The Virginia General Assembly recently authorized public bodies — including
local boards and commissions — to meet electronically during the state of
emergency declared by Gov. Ralph Northam in response to COVID-19. This
clarifies and expands the previous authority for boards, authorities,
planning commissions and other public bodies to meet and take action even
when they cannot otherwise meet in person due to social distancing
Read on to learn more about the General Assembly’s action and what it means
for development applications in Northern Virginia.
Electronic Meetings Legislation
On April 22, 2020, the General Assembly authorized public bodies, local
boards and commissions to meet electronically provided these meetings
satisfy the Virginia Freedom of Information Act’s quorum requirements. The
General Assembly’s action clarifies and expressly allows local boards and
commissions to consider land use cases in an electronic meeting. This
change will go into effect once Gov. Northam signs the legislation into law
and will remain in effect through June 30, 2022. The General Assembly is
considering a permanent legislative fix during the 2021 legislative
The General Assembly passed this legislation to clarify an opinion issued
by Attorney General (AG) Mark Herring in late March. The AG opinion
concluded that local boards could “meet electronically to make decisions
that must be made immediately and where failure to do so could result in
irrevocable public harm.”
Localities, commissions and authorities in Northern Virginia took varied
approaches to holding meetings electronically under the AG opinion.
Arlington County passed an ordinance allowing the Arlington County Board to
meet virtually to consider matters essential to the continued operation of
government. Fairfax County held its first virtual meetings in mid-April,
which included the review of several land use cases. Alexandria passed an
emergency ordinance to allow the City Council and commissions to meet
virtually, and the Alexandria City Council has met virtually several times
since then to consider limited agendas. The Alexandria Board of
Architectural Review met virtually in April with a limited agenda.
Impact on Development in Northern Virginia
The General Assembly’s action clarifies the prior authority to meet
electronically and expressly authorizes consideration of normal agenda
items, including land use cases. There had been a tremendous amount of
uncertainty about whether localities would put land use cases on hold
during the COVID-19 crisis. The new legislation clarifies and makes it
abundantly clear that local public bodies can meet virtually to consider
land use cases if they choose to exercise the authority granted by the
It remains unclear whether localities will allow commissions — including
planning commissions — to meet virtually even with express authorization to
do so. Localities are still figuring out how local public bodies should be
involved in the land use process during the public health emergency.
Implementation will vary by jurisdiction, but most jurisdictions want to
keep land use cases moving and are thinking of creative ways to involve
commissions once the new legislation goes into effect.
Please contact one of the authors if you have questions about the new
legislation and what it means for your land use cases.
McGuireWoods has published additional thought leadership analyzing how companies across industries can address crucial business and legal issues related to COVID-19.