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Votes

Dranesville Supervisor Absent from West*Group Hearing

Mendelsohn Avoids 'Appearance' of Conflict

With Dranesville District Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn absent from the debate over rezoning 13.5 acres at Tysons Corner from commercial to residential, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors overwhelmingly approved West*Group’s proposal to build 1,354 new residences at Tysons Corner. There will be four 150-foot tall buildings for condos and apartments and another 58 townhouses, tripling development from a potential 590,033 square feet of “gross floor area” that would have been offices into 1,770,100 square feet that will become condominiums, apartments, and townhouses.

Prices for the condos will begin at about $500,000, but climb to $1 million after development options are added, said Tom Fleury, West*Group’s vice president for development services. He compared the townhouses to those under construction at Evans Farm on Chain Bridge Road, which West*Group developed. They will sell at prices upwards of $1 million.

Mendelsohn recused himself because of “the appearance” of a conflict of interest. He works in the Reston office of Piper, Rudnick, whose Washington office handled legal matters for a start-up firm in which West*Group founder Gerry Halpin was an investor.

“The code is clear that if you have any relationship -- and it is open for debate if there is a relationship -- it’s a gray enough area that the appearance, if nothing else, would require” his refusal, he explained.

“We have been orphaned by the loss of our supervisor,” said Adrienne Whyte, planning and zoning chairman for the McLean Citizens Association (MCA). “ I am asking each one of you to adopt us.”

Ironically, it was development proposals by West*Group that prompted both of the Democrats who ran against Mendelsohn in previous elections.

Former MCA president Bill Byrnes ran against Mendelsohn in 1995 after the Board approved West*Group’s proposal to build the Gannett Company’s headquarters at the intersection of the Dulles Access Road and I-495. That building, originally approved at 300 feet in height, was later scaled down after Mendelsohn was elected.

In 1999, Democrat Barbara Phillips opposed Mendelsohn’s re-election bid. She was incensed when the Board refused to allow McLean citizens to vote on a tax to purchase Evans Farm on Chain Bridge Road as a park. She lost to Mendelsohn, who was elected to a second term.

This year, with all the supervisors up for re-election, Mendelsohn is the only one to announce he won’t seek a third term in office.

IN MENDELSOHN’S ABSENCE, the rezoning decision was dominated by the Board’s seven members who are Democrats. Sully Supervisor Michael Frey (R) was the only board member to make no comment. Both he and Springfield Supervisor Elaine McConnell were absent from the dais during portions of the debate. The Board’s seven Democrats were always present. All nine board members voted for the proposal.

Providence District Supervisor Gerry Connolly, whose district includes the 189-acre West*Group office park, and Board of Supervisors Chairman Kate Hanley, a former supervisor from Providence District, argued in support of West*Group’s proposal during a hearing that lasted more than three hours and brought forward more than 25 speakers.

Connolly touted West*Group’s package of “proffers,” conditions that run with the rezoning to sweeten the deal for the county by offsetting the effects of more intense development.

They include $1 million for a homeless shelter; $875,000 for public schools, $700,000 in cash and $175,000 for a modular classroom at the school which the development will feed; a shuttle bus service and swimming pools for residents; a one-acre linear park, and $50,000 to trails in Providence District.

“This actually is a substantial proffer package by any measure,” Connolly said.

Under his questioning, Fleury said commercial space would have yielded $1.7 million per year in taxes. Residential development, he projected, will yield more than to $5 million per year at buildout. Connolly pointed out that 52 percent of Fairfax County’s tax revenue is presently transferred to public schools.

Jack Herrity (R), a former board chairman who is running against Hanley for the job again, asked for an economic impact statement on this and all proposals.

He said West*Group’s proposal had been “heard in a vacuum” and others had been considered piecemeal.

Herrity criticized one of the original proffers that gave Connolly the power to distribute up to $50,000 for trails in Providence District.

Combined with West*Group’s offer of a free lease for 4,000 square feet of government office space, it was “plainly a contribution to the office of the supervisor in whose district the development would take place,” Herrity said, calling it “a highly unseemly and frankly, offensive display of money not designated for campaign purposes.”

Told by Hanley that the proffer had been amended on Jan. 2 so the $50,000 will be distributed by the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, Herrity responded “Oh. This is the magic wand!”

“This is called bait and switch,” he said.

George Lehnigk, who founded Options of Oakton, said the proffers paled by comparison with what other developers had offered.

Hearthstone, which is building in the heart of Oakton, only improved their proffers, Lehnigk said, after the board initially turned them down.

Karen Hunt of Vienna challenged the adequacy of the county’s development proffers, saying a “perception” exists that they don’t offset development impacts.

“In a rezoning of this magnitude, there will be substantial impacts,” and the county needs “to more aggressively pursue proffers to offset impacts,” she said.