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Developer Seeks to Beat Deadline

Citizens in McLean are dealing with an early test of new environmental laws designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

A McLean landowner told an animated meeting of the McLean Planning Committee last week that he is anxious to pipe a stream on his property before the county adopts tougher environmental restrictions in March that might protect the stream, a tributary of Pimmit Run known as Saucy Branch.

The pipe would be a first step toward the development of townhouse units on the property, which sits at the corner of Chain Bridge Road and Davidson Drive. Jim Wheeler, the landowner, has already been negotiating with neighboring property owners to sell him their land and has partnered with developer Jim Ballard and Keith Martin, a real-estate lawyer with Walsh Colucci.

LAST MARCH, the state beefed up regulations mandating that every year-round stream in the Chesapeake Bay watershed be surrounded by a 100-foot buffer on either side. The new ordinance allows localities to determine for themselves which streams flow year-round and should therefore benefit from a resource protection area (RPA). But the state gave the localities until March 1, 2003, to adopt the new ordinance. County environmentalists are at work right now mapping all the streams in Fairfax County, which sits in the watershed, and determining which are perennial. But they won't have a final map until at least next spring.

In the meantime, developers who want to build near streams have to prove that water does not flow year-round. If they find that the stream is perennial, they can still apply for a waiver of the ordinance.

The new ordinance, said Martin, "changes into an RPA what is not an RPA [now], and you have a 100-foot setback."

"I don't want to be suddenly banking on a waiver," he added. "Jim Wheeler still has to protect the property rights on the land he does own."

"RPA waivers are going to be mighty hard to find," said Ballard.

Wheeler said the new ordinance would be depriving him of his land rights.

"It's unfair," he said. "I think that stinks."

But Maya Huber, of the McLean Planning Committee, said the new restrictions are necessary.

"Every time you pipe a stream, you increase the runoff velocity downstream," which contributes to erosion and clouds the Chesapeake Bay, she said. "We're not supposed to be degrading streams any longer."

WHETHER WHEELER and Ballard will be able to pipe the water hinges on whether the stream is perennial. Because the county has not yet completed its final map, Wheeler and Ballard have hired an engineer to determine the stream's frequency. But the engineer's decision will not carry any weight unless it adheres strictly to the county's standard definition of a perennial stream and county staff agrees with the decision.

At the meeting, Wheeler said the body of water on his property was not a stream but a "drainage ditch."

"There's no water that runs through that" on a regular basis, said Wheeler, a D.C. resident, whose family has owned the land since 1973.

Steve Dryden, a member of the nonprofit group Fairfax Trails and Streams, said incorporating the stream with its protective buffer into the new development would make it more attractive to potential buyers.

Piping the stream "is really another nail on the coffin of this particular watershed," said Dryden, who has studied the history and ecology of Pimmit Run. The stream is already piped on both sides of Wheeler's property.

If a "creative" design plan could set the development around the stream, Dryden asked Wheeler, "Why are you going to put the stream underground?"

"We lose property, and I lose value," said Wheeler.

"No, you gain value," said Dryden.

"There is no stream. There is no stream," Wheeler repeated.

RESIDENTS OF the Stoneleigh community, which encircles Wheeler's property, are not only opposed to piping the stream but are also worried about the new development, said Mitchell Sacks, the president of the Stoneleigh Homeowners Association.

Homeowners are "not opposed to any development there, but they have concerns about what gets built there and what it will look like," he said.

Sacks is particularly concerned that the townhouses would be too tall and that there would be no buffer between Stoneleigh residences and new homes.

Wheeler and Ballard have already submitted a site plan for the county's review. County staff could allow the owners to put in a pipe without holding a Planning Commission public hearing.

"We're still operating in an environment of extreme uncertainty," said Ballard.

"We don't want to lose goodwill, and we want to do what is right," said Wheeler.