Board Defers West*Group Decision

Board Defers West*Group Decision

Dec. 11 -- Citizens packed the board room at the Fairfax County Government Center Monday to testify on a proposed West*Group rezoning in Tysons Corner that would create 1,356 new residences. But nobody got a chance to speak as the Board deferred the application on a point of order to its Jan. 6 meeting.

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, West*Group filed an affidavit indicating a possible conflict of interest between the company and Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville).

His law firm, Piper Rudnick, has represented a start-up venture called Signal Rock that was partly funded by Gerry Halpin, one of West*Group’s original founders.

But with only Halpin as a common denominator, the link was too remote to trigger the law firm’s internal radar for conflicts of interest.

Just before the rezoning was scheduled for a Dec. 9 public hearing before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, West*Group suggested in an affidavit that the Dranesville supervisor, who had been vocal in his opposition to their rezoning application, should recuse himself.

A Board policy requires that seven business days elapse between the filing of a new affidavit and a public hearing on any development application. But only four business days had passed since the affidavit was filed Dec. 3. And Mendelsohn said he needed more time to investigate.

But because of the holidays, the next available hearing date would be four weeks later, Jan. 6.

So on Dec. 9, Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) asked the Board to waive the seven-day waiting period and proceed with the public hearing. Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) seconded Hyland's motion, saying the citizens who were present should have a chance to speak that day.

After Supervisor Gerry Connolly (D-Providence) suggested that Mendelsohn was stalling for time to marshall opposition to the rezoning, Mendelsohn retorted that the last-minute attempt to force him to recuse was an attempt to silence the voice of Dranesville citizens.

O’Connell withdrew her second of the motion to proceed, and Connolly then moved to defer the hearing until Jan. 6, 2003. The vote passed 9-1 with only Hyland voting no. Connolly said the Board has deferred past cases to comply with the seven-day waiting period rule.

"The Board has been very consistent on this policy," he said. "Gerry [Hyland]'s never quite agreed [with it]."

"This gives me time to figure out what the [legal] situation is," Mendelsohn said later. "I think the case was not ready yet."

Asked if the West*Group affidavit was trying to silence him, Mendelsohn said: "I've been assured not, so I'll take that at face value."

But "The timing stunk," he said.

Connolly reiterated Monday that Mendelsohn should recuse himself. "I hope and pray Mr. Mendelsohn will do it because that's a very serious legal matter," he said. "You could go to jail."

THE WEST*GROUP application has caused controversy in Dranesville District. Some parents say West*Group’s proffers — voluntary contributions to pay for infrastructure — aren’t enough.

Last week, the company increased its school's proffer from $200,000 to $700,000. The extra half-million dollars would be paid in increments of $100,000 triggered by each new phase of the project.

With boundaries for the elementary school under construction at the Andrew Chapel site not yet set, it is still unclear which elementary school will be affected.

West*Group also proffered a 10-year lease on 4,000 square feet of space at Tysons Corner to be used for government meeting rooms or offices.

Mendelsohn said it could serve as a new office for the Providence District Supervisor, and Connolly has concurred that it might. But “he’s still not willing to say to any of us what it will be used for,” Mendelsohn said.

The company has also offered land on Old Meadow Road for a future public facility, $1 million to build the fourth county homeless shelter and a 1- to 1.3-acre “linear park” to be maintained by the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Connolly termed West*Group’s proffers "generous." He said more high-density residences is exactly what Tysons Corner needs.

"The applicant is doing what the county has been pleading to do," he said.

He ascribed political motives to three Republicans who oppose the project: Mendelsohn, who is not seeking re-election; the McLean Citizens Association’s Adrienne Whyte, and Dranesville Planning Commissioner Joan DuBois.

Last week, DuBois filed to run for Mendelsohn’s open seat. Whyte has been mentioned as the likely successor to DuBois on the Planning Commission.

Connolly said all three were trying to gain political advantage by scaring citizens. "Mr. Mendelsohn has been very effective in frightening people about this.

"I believe the motivation for some of these people leading the charge, like Stu [Mendelsohn] is political."

Mendelsohn says the proffers are inadequate, and there is no need to rush to a vote on the application.

New residential development criteria will take effect on Jan. 7, so there is still time for the Board to vote on the rezoning before that date.