Interested, angry, curious, feisty, demanding and involved.
All those terms could be used to describe the Mount Vernon-area citizens that nearly filled the auditorium of the Walt Whitman Middle School Tuesday night to once again evaluate plans to increase parking at the Mount Vernon Estate.
Billed as the Mount Vernon Circle Environmental Assessment Public Meeting, it was the third forum scheduled by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), its consultant Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc., and the National Park Service to gain citizen input for expanding parking at the Estate and removing parking from the circle.
But the real controversy started well before the meeting when the newsletter announcement, dated Jan. 8, stated, "There will be no public statement opportunities at the workshop." This was quickly changed following complaints from Mount Vernon District supervisor Gerald Hyland (D) and representatives of the Stakeholders Participation Panel (SPP).
Scheduled to run from 6-8 p.m., the first hour was devoted to allowing attendees to view charts and maps and discuss the four primary alternative proposals, presently under consideration, with government and consultant representatives. The list had been winnowed down from 14 as submitted by the Stakeholders Panel.
"We had 14 alternatives. Now we have four. What happened to all the rest?" Hyland questioned. "Why even have a committee if this is what's going to happen?”
The Stakeholders Panel was appointed by Hyland at the beginning of the process to create a vehicle for citizen input. It is composed of 10 members chaired by Jim Cossey, who stated, "We have worked constantly with the FHA and their consultant, and we will continue to push for our views throughout this process."
Frank Cohn, Panel vice chairman, stated, "They keep bringing back alternatives we object to. They now have a chart that lists ‘eliminated’ concepts. Those were to be held in abeyance for future consideration, not eliminated."
Jim Davis, chairman, Environment and Recreation Committee, Mount Vernon Council, found the entire effort of the FHWA and their consultant to be "incomplete. Air, water, and noise pollution have not been considered. We have no idea what impact any of this will have on the area's air quality. If statistics prove no effect, I can live with that. But these things need to be considered."
ACCORDING TO THE consultant, there are now four preliminary parking alternatives under serious consideration. They are as follows:
1. Parking lot on Mount Vernon property west of Route 235;
2. Expand East and West Parking Lots plus overflow parking lot on Mount Vernon property West of Route 235;
3. Expand East and West Parking Lots and expand existing employee lot behind Mount Vernon wall for overflow parking; and
No. 3 refers to the wall along Route 235 across from the post office building and lot. It would abut the existing employee lot presently located behind the wall.
The vast majority of those attending favored either Alternative 3 or 4. But as Cossey stated during the question-and-answer session, "We recommend that our Alternative 14, to expand the West Parking Lot to cover all the Estate's parking needs, be included in the decision process."
James Reese, executive director, Mount Vernon Estate, was asked by a member of the audience, "Are the Mount Vernon Ladies aware of all the controversy they are causing, and if so, do they even care?" His response was, "They are aware. But unless you are here, you are probably not aware of the level of controversy."
THIS ENTIRE PROJECT was triggered by the planned expansion of Mount Vernon Estate to create a total educational venue and parking within the circle during peak visitor periods. Although the expansion does not envision any increase in the number of visitors, it does predict more lengthy stays, thereby consuming the existing parking for longer periods of time.
This brought forth a question of whether the FHWA was going to run any actual tests on parking needs before it moved ahead with any planned construction. Jack Van Dop, FHWA project manager, Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division, stated there were "no plans to do so at this time."
He noted, "This meeting is to get your (the citizens) comments on what is on the table and what is not. At the last meeting in June, we heard loud and clear that doing anything to increase traffic on Route 235 and the Parkway or to modify any of the surrounding road was to be off the table. They are off the table."
Hyland asked Van Dop, as a point of clarification, "Are you saying there is no road realignment as a part of this study?" Van Dop assured him that was the case.
Hyland further pressed Van Dop by asking, "Would it be fair to say that any of the citizens' panel alternatives could still be considered?"
The answer was yes.
COSSEY STRESSED that the SPP based its deliberations and alternatives on five guiding principles: 1. Nothing should be proposed that would increase traffic; 2. Do nothing that will increase hazards to pedestrians or traffic; 3. There should be no rerouting of Route 235; 4. There should be no lots or exits on or onto Route 235; and 5. Do nothing that would bring pressure in the future to realign Route 235.
In response, Larry Meisner, project manager for Kimley-Horn, said, "The Stakeholders had a longer list than we did. We agreed with some of their points and not with others. We considered parts of a variety of their alternatives."
He further stated, "We are looking to accommodate another 290 spaces. The question is where?" According to Meisner, approximately 150 cars park in the circle when the existing lots are full. "The Park Service does not approve of parking in the circle, and it raises pedestrian safety concerns," he explained.
It was stated that remote location parking served by shuttle buses was not under consideration, nor was service by mass transportation. "We have been working toward two objectives — get parking off the circle and build for the increased demand predicted by the Mount Vernon Estate," Meisner clarified.
As outlined at the meeting, the next steps in the process, according to FHWA are to "receive input on alternatives from the public; evaluate alternatives; continue coordination with Mount Vernon, Fairfax County and other agencies; select preferred alternative; prepare Environmental Assessment document; and prepare decision document."
All but the last point are to be completed by the next public workshop scheduled for sometime in May. But, such a schedule may be overly optimistic. As Hyland summarized it, "We're a long way from a final decision."