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Votes

Planning Commission OKs Exxon Car Wash, 4-3; Harsel Abstains

August 1, 2002

One abstention broke a potential deadlock on July 25 when the Fairfax County Planning Commission voted on Exxon’s application for a car wash, six more gasoline pumps, and a 3,000-square foot convenience store at McLean’s central intersection at Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive.

By a vote of 4 to 3, the car wash and other uses were approved as an amendment to a special exception originally granted in 1993.

Suzanne Harsel (Braddock) abstained.

“The proposal is one awful proposal for this site,” said Doug Potts, a McLean Mews resident who walks to work on Curran Street.

But Exxon attorney Keith Martin said, “You will not see another Exxon Mobil like this anywhere on the east coast. They broke the template.

“When they started this case, they said ‘how are we going to do something special and beautiful in McLean?’” Martin said.

As part of the proposal, Exxon has offered to pay $250,000 toward the estimated $806,000 cost to underground utilities at the intersetion of Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive.

Despite Exxon’s efforts, Fairfax County’s planning staff, the McLean Planning Committee, the McLean Citizens Association, and four homeowners groups oppose the amendment to a special exception that was first granted to Exxon in 1990.

Bryn Mawr, Salona Village, The Hamptons of McLean, and McLean Mews all oppose the expanded use with a carwash, considered by some opponents as a new use.

Previously, Exxon had voluntarily closed 10 service bays at the location, which several speakers pointed out were noisier than the car wash is likely to be.

"Jackhammers are a lot noisier than a car wash," said Planning Commissioner Frank de la Fe (Hunter Mill).

Martin asked what would happen if Exxon reinstated them.

“How would the people at the McLean Mews and the Hamptons like for all those cars to use Corner Lane, and how that would impact the quality of their lives?” he asked rhetorically.

Martin also challenged the argument that the Comprehensive Plan calls for mixed use at the intersection, office and retail, rather than the gas station that has existed since the late 1950s.

He placed several photos of downtown McLean on the overhead projector in the board room that showed “the core image” in McLean’s Community Business Center (CBC).

They included what he called “one of our finer restaurants:” the McDonald’s on Elm Street at Old Dominion Drive, and “world class architecture in McLean’s ‘core image,’” such as buildings near the traffic island at the intersection of Old Chain Bridge and Chain Bridge Road.

Martin also showed a photo of the Three Pigs restaurant in Langley Shopping Center on Chain Bridge Road.

PLANNING COMMISSIONER Walter Alcorn (at-large) questioned Martin whether Exxon really needs the car wash at the site.

“That’s the one thing that kind of sticks out,” he said.

The toned-down architecture, landscaped streetscape, and utility undergrounding could be defended as amended uses to a 1993 special exception granted to Exxon, while a car wash could be considered a new use, Alcorn said.

“That use generates the income for the public benefits,” Martin said.

He emphasized that a $250,000 contribution to undergrounding utilities at Old Dominion and Chain Bridge means Exxon is contributing “close to 33 percent" of the undergrounding that is the primary goal of the Comprehensive Plan.

The total cost was estimated at $806,000.

Fairfax County has $1.8 million remaining from a 1988 bond referendum to pay for revitalization, Martin said.

“Mr. [Stuart] Mendelsohn [Dranesville District Supervisor] is ready willing and able to spend it but he is looking to leverage it” to get utilities underground on the streets that enter the central intersection, he said.

“Did they really hire an architect?” Harsel asked Martin of Exxon’s design. “That’s out of character for Exxon. I don’t think they’re getting their money’s worth.

“I disagree with the fact that you need the car wash to underwrite the underground utilities,” Harsel said. “I think the mini-mart is the money-maker, and I think we all know that,” she said.

“If the Three Pigs [restaurant] wanted to increase an outdoor spit and a plastic pig out front, would you be here to support it?” she asked Martin.

“I don’t know if Mr. Martin has supported a plastic pig in his entire life, and I would hate for that to come down to this commission,” said Chairman Peter Murphy (Springfield).

Before she voted, Harsel greeted Diane D’Arcy, a former planning and zoning committee chairman for the MCA, who attended the hearing to support Exxon. When the vote was taken later, Harsel announced she would abstain.

Barbara Phillips, who chairs the McLean Planning Committee committee that reviewed Exxon’s application and recommended against it, said “McLean was the same [to Exxon] as Highway 29 to 11 in Gainesville, Va.”

“For years, the citiznes have fought to have a CBC that would not be known as ‘gasoline alley,’” she said.

Kyle Raffaniello, a member of the board of the McLean Little League, supported Exxon’s proposal.

“I have never seen a gas station with such amenities,” she said. “We don’t need an office building in this space.”

But Karen Brown of McLean Mews said “It will not enhance my investment in my home.”

After several speakers commented that three other service stations already exist at the same intersection, Planning Commission Chairman Pete Murphy of Springfield said “We cannot base a denial on a restriction of trade. We’re going to make our judgement based on the zoning ordinance and the Comprehensive Plan.”

Phillip Freedenbert, speaking as a member of one of the 47 families who live in McLean Mews, said he opposes Exxon’s SEA application because it is “counter to the way McLean’s CBC should look.

“It utterly fails to meet the Comprehensive Plan’s objective for this highly visible site,” he said.

“It will add to traffic congestion and make the streets more dangerous. Exxon offers no solution to the problems it will inevitably create.”

“It would defeat the goal of a pedestrian-friendly CBC,” he said. “There is no need for any of these improvements to add six pumps, a canopy, and yet another ugly, noisy carwash for which no need exists.

“Why have a comprehensive plan if nobody follows it?” Freedenbert asked.

Exxon’s proposal “lacks popular support where it matters most -- in the affected community,” said Naila Aziz-Ahmed, president of the McLean Mews homeowner association.

She cited 10 reasons why the HOA “is united in firm and vocal opposition” to the plan.

Aziz-Ahmed, a Realtor, said propery values would decline “as a direct result” of the carwash and other changes “with no offsetting advantage.

“I have never seen any empirical evidence that a carwash will make real estate values decline,” said Murphy.

DuBois asked Ahmed if she expected Exxon to pay for 100 percent of the cost of the undergrounding of utilities at the site, the answer was yes.

DuBOIS, DRANESVILLE’S PLANNING COMMISSIONER, voted in favor of the proposal. “I THINK WHAT made up my mind for me is I do not believe Exxon has any intention of selling that property for another use,” she said. “It has been a gas station since 1959.

“Given that premise, I personally felt this was a benefit to that corner,” she said. “With the additional money we’ll be getting for undergrounding, that is important as well.

“It was the enhancement and the revitalization of that corner. It was a big plus. I felt to not move that forward would not send the right message to other properties and business uses that might be inclined to do the same thing,” DuBois said.

“If somebody is taking the initiative to improve the property, as I think they are, it is important to send the message that we welcome that.”

Potts, who opposed the car wash and other expansions on behalf of The Hamptons of McLean homeowners association, walked out of the board room at the Fairfax County Government Center as DuBois was reading her prepared statement.

Potts opposed Exxon’s plan, saying he had worked at a car wash when he was a student at McLean High School, but had nothing against car washes themselves.

“I just figured it was over and I might as well go home and do something else,” said Potts. “It seemed [DuBois] was going to recommend approval of the SEA.”

“It’s an anti-pedestrian vote,” he said. “All we’re saying [to Exxon] is ‘give us a better proposal than a mini-mart, more gas pumps, and a car wash,’” he said.

DuBois said the proposal was “a difficult case” that had divided the MCA “almost down the middle” before its 16-14 vote against a resolution supporting the Exxon.

MCA Planning and Zoning Committee Chairman Adrienne Whyte attended the meeting, but did not offer public comment.

DuBois said that when she first moved to McLean, there were five or six gas stations in McLean, where now there are four.

“It isn’t as if I am a newcomer who didn’t think this through,” she said. “I don’t think the car wash will offer the severe impact that people said it would cause them.

“[It will be housed in a brick building with brick wall around the stacking lanes. When the 10 service bays were open, [at the Exxon] there was more noise,” she said.

“The use is still a service station,” she said. “The Comprehensive Plan is a guide.”

“The applicant has agreed with all the citizens' requests except the one to remove the car wash,” DuBois said. “There is no empirical evidence it will attract customers from Arlington and Falls Church.

“This approval will have positive affects on the appearance and character of McLean,” she said.

“Not to approve it would send a negative message to the property owners in the CBC who may be contemplating improvements,” she said.

FINAL VOTE IS 4-3; Harsel abstains.

Alcorn, Byers and Ilryong Moon (at large) voted no. Harsel abstained, while DuBois, Murphy, Frank De La Fe (Hunter Mill) and Laurie Frost Wilson (at large) voted yes.

The vote was four to three in favor of the amendment, with one abstention, Harsel’s.

Four of the 12 planning commissioners were not present: Linda Smyth of Providence; John Kelso of Lee; Ron Koch of Sully, and Janet Hall of Mason District.

Exxon’s nomination goes forward to the Board of Supervisors for a hearing on Monday, Aug. 5.