The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors' decision last week to allow 14-story towers near the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station capped a three-year discussion on the wisdom of high-density developments near public transit. But, as is the case with all building projects, the Fairlee/Metrowest development has hidden costs.
Schools, roads, Metro, parks, public safety agencies and the county's sewer system will all need an influx of money to handle the 2,250 new housing units and up to 400,000 square feet of planned office and retail space. As the development moves into its rezoning phase, those costs are likely to take center stage in the debate swirling around Fairlee/Metrowest.
What it all comes down to is a give-and-take agreement between county planners and developers known as the “proffer system.” Proffers — a staple of Virginia land use — allow local governments to demand that developers upgrade area public facilities such as roads or schools, in exchange for rezonings that will allow builders to build at a higher density. The idea is that developers will pay to compensate for the impact new residents and workers will have on a neighborhood.
Local officials are confident that they can extract enough proffer commitments from Fairlee/Metrowest developer Pulte Homes to weave thousands of new residents and workers into the community without flooding nearby public facilities.
"You can't ignore the fact that you've got a Metro station right there," said Board of Supervisors chair Gerry Connolly (D). "Isn't that where we want to put our higher density?"
Neighboring residents aren't so sure. To them, the high-density development will crowd the quiet suburban neighborhood in a way that harms their quality of life.
Proffer negotiations surrounding the Fairlee/Metrowest development will be closely scrutinized. Should county planners and the developer reach an agreement, that accord is likely to serve as a precedent for other high-density development proposed near transit stations, both at the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station and at future Metro stations in Tysons Corner and along the Dulles Corridor.
SUPERVISOR LINDA Smyth (D-Providence), who represents the area near the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station, said she will hold the developer's feet to the fire.
"We are looking at the rezoning," she said. "We are going to look at how the development proposes to mitigate those impacts."
"We're trying to do the best we can to limit impacts," said Connolly.
To nearby residents, however, the problem is bigger than the Fairlee/Metrowest proposal. Another developer has proposed a plan change that would place another 1,326 housing units and 24,650 square feet of retail space off Blake Lane in the Poplar Terrace neighborhood. Also, the Board of Supervisors approved a rezoning in September that would add 259 housing units off Nutley Street. Together, the three developments would add 3,835 units near the station, or roughly 70 percent of the number of housing units in the town of Vienna.
"If we just think of Fairlee, then we're OK, but we're not OK if all the other developments come on board," said Will Elliott, a resident of the Circle Woods development adjacent to the Fairlee/Metrowest site. Elliott is also a member of a new citizens group known as FairGrowth, which opposed the planned development.
"You've got a big area here," said James Fahs, a resident of Poplar Terrace, who has refused to sell his house to make way for the Poplar Terrace development. "They're working on Fairlee without fully considering everything in the vicinity and what the impact is going to be."
Taking a look at the broader area, however, may not find what residents are hoping for, said Connolly. The Vienna Metro area, he said, is cited as an example of insufficient density. "The likely result of such a study would be calls for increased density, not decreased," he said.
County staff and a citizens task force reviewing the Poplar Terrace plan change have recommended that the Board of Supervisors turn down the application. Although Smyth won't vote on the application until late spring, she noted that county staffers have "come up with good reasons why this should not happen."
The debate over the development has spread beyond the neighborhood's limits. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the regional Coalition for Smarter Growth, said he will be monitoring the proffer discussions. The Coalition supported the plan amendment proposal because "it had most of the criteria for a good transit-oriented development process," said Schwartz. "It comes down to now the political will at the rezoning stage to enforce all these detailed requirements on the developer."
ALREADY SOME schools in the area are approaching their capacity; the Fairfax County Park Authority has identified a shortage of parkland near the station; roads and Metro trains are jammed at rush hour; and the county may not have enough sewer capacity to handle increases to the density allowed in the county's Comprehensive Plan for land use, according to a Sept. 17 memo from County Executive Tony Griffin to the Board of Supervisors.
New development would have some impact on those services, although it's difficult to know its extent, said Smyth.
"We don't have a crystal ball," she said. "We don't know exactly what every ramification will be. However, we also have to look at the fact that some of these things are not actually developer responsibilities."
For instance, she noted, improvements to Metro are going to be necessary even if the Fairlee/Metrowest development never gets built. Expanding capacity on the trains "is something that Metro needs to be working on, and the county needs to be working with the Metro, to take care of that," she said. "Is that really a developer responsibility? Then again, I think we're a victim of our own success."
Metro, Connolly said, has also just gotten a cash infusion and will be able to add rail cars prior to any construction at Fairlee/Metrowest. "There is new capacity coming on board," he said.
Even if the Fairlee/Metrowest project is never built, up to half a million new residents will still be coming into the county in the next few years, said Schwartz. If the county turns down developments near transit, "you just push people farther out, and they're guaranteed to drive in through I-66 and crowd your community."
"If we don't do this kind of planning, what are we going to do to absorb further growth?" Connolly said.
Connection reporter Ari Cetron contributed to this story.