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The Year That Was

2003 was a memorable year, one perhaps many would like to forget.

It started with a rumor that Inova Mount Vernon Hospital might be closing in favor of a new location. That was followed by the first blizzard of the new century. Then came Hurricane Isabel bringing with her the greatest devastation witnessed in the Mount Vernon District in memory.

This was all wrapped in the context of the ongoing War on Terrorism and the War in Iraq which had a major impact on the Mount Vernon/Lee districts primary military installation, Fort Belvoir. There were a series of deployments, highlighted by family separations, tightened security and the roller coaster emergency preparedness that impacted the military and civilian guardians alike.

Most of the spring and early summer were a washout. This caused an increase in the mosquito population which, in turn, increased the threat of West Nile Virus with the first disease bearing mosquitos found in neighboring Alexandria. After the cold weather drove off the mosquitos, concerns turned to the worst outbreak of influenza in recent times.

To make matters worse the vaccine used in the flu shots was found to be lacking protection against a new strain that was the primary cause of the 2003 infection. Then, just for a little icing on the year that was, along came a small earthquake.

At 12:01 a.m. January 1, 2004, there seemed to be a sigh of relief chorus — Orange alert or no Orange alert.

But, there were also some positives. Richmond Highway revitalization continued its upward spiral. The Mount Vernon Circle controversy reached a conclusion favorable to all. Tourism to the area's three main attractions — Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall, and Woodlawn Plantation — showed signs of improvement. Laurel Hill and the Lorton Arts Center became more than just future hopes.

THE OMINUS signs of 2003 got off to an early start at Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland's 16th Annual Town Meeting on January 25. Prior to the start of his usual virtual "Bus Tour," which is normally a light-hearted and informative visual of improvements and changes throughout the area, Hyland took on a serious tone to address one particular issue. That turned out to be the announcement concerning rumors "about the potential closure of Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. He then vowed, "As long as I am your supervisor, I will fight like you know what to keep the hospital here."

Hyland made two other promises that morning to the throng assembled in the Little Theater of Mount Vernon High School: a Mount Vernon area resident would be added to the Inova Health System Board of Directors so that the interests of the Mount Vernon and Lee districts would be represented and citizen groups from both Mount Vernon and Lee districts will sit down with the Inova Health System people and talk about the future of the hospital.

The first has occurred. The second has not. Instead, IHS established an internally selected task force to evaluate the hospital's future and bring forth a report of its findings. Known as the Southeast Health Planning Task Force, the vast majority of its meetings have been held behind closed doors. It's final report is now scheduled for the latter part of January 2004.

This secretive approach triggered Hyland's formation of the Citizens Alliance Rescue Effort, CARE. It's Executive Committee is composed of several members of the task force, doctors from IMVH, public officials, citizen activists, and representatives of the business community as well as Hyland and Dana Kauffman, Lee District supervisor.

There is also a CARE Advisory Committee composed of leaders and representatives from the various community associations throughout the two districts. CARE worked throughout the year to bring pressure on IHS to not only prevent the moving of IMVH but also to increase its services and medical capabilities.

But the pressure on IHS and its executive director and president, Knox Singleton, was not confined to CARE, Hyland, Kauffman, and citizens of the two districts. It also came directly from the IMVH medical staff, the areas U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators, and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

ONE POTENTIAL monetary resuscitation proposed by U.S. Representative James P. Moran (D-8) would allow veterans and their dependents to use their hospital benefits at IMVH as well as or in place of DeWitt Army Hospital at Fort Belvoir. He also secured $1 million in the Defense Appropriations Bill to serve as a stimulus for the U.S. Army to take advantage of IMVH's expertise in Orthopedics and Joint Replacement.

IHS employed the Lewin Group, a management consultant organization, to analyze all the various factor impacting the hospital's future, including its finances and revenue generators. They also conducted focus group interviews with a variety of interested and impacted parties including the Task Force.

The final decision will depend on the report to be issued by the Task Force. Various members of that body have stated it should be released publicly first or simultaneously with its presentation to IHS. There are three consecutive meeting scheduled for January 8, 15, and 22.

Hot on the heels of the IMVH controversy came the first blizzard of the 21st century. Arriving just ahead of the long President's Day weekend, February 15-17, it dumped nearly 20 inches of snow throughout the area.

Not only did it virtually obliterate the expected financial gains from the usual busy weekend, but it also added significantly to the already financially strapped VDOT budget. And with a warm-up coming close behind, officials expressed fears of flooding. Little did they know what was lurking in Mother Nature's closet of catastrophes just seven months in the future.

Most residents of the Mount Vernon and Lee districts were able to navigate in a reasonable amount of time after the snow creased, according to officials. But not all. Hyland stated at the time, "I had three communities which had not seen a plow by Tuesday morning."

In Lee District, Kauffman reported that their only problem was straightening out who had responsibility for clearing a given street — the developer or the state. "In one case the street had been turned over to the state two years prior" to the storm. In another they were still under the control of the developer. But, in the end, everyone was able to drive on cleared roadways.

A SIGNIFICANT change occurred for the Mount Vernon District January 17. On that day police officials, politicians, civic leaders, and citizens jammed the Mount Vernon Government Center to witness a one-of-a-kind ceremony for Fairfax County.

It was the Change of Command Ceremony for the Mount Vernon Station of the Fairfax County Police Department transferring leadership from Major Shawn Barrett to Captain Larry Moser. No other station in the county follows this formal procedure.

"This type of ceremony is usually performed only by the military. But, it is done at the Mount Vernon Station because it is unique," said Colonel J. Thomas Manger, Fairfax County Police Chief. "It puts a lot of pressure on me to put the best commanders we have at this station." It is Moser's first station command.

Later in the year there was the naming of a new chief for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. Michael Neuhard, the department's assistant chief, was appointed to replace retired Chief Edward L. Stinnette.

Neuhard, who started with the County Fire and Rescue Department in 1977, was one of the coordinating officers during the events of 9/11 and was later named to the Secure Virginia Panel by Governor Mark Warner. It's mission is to development preventive and safety measures for statewide, regional, and/or local emergencies.

EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS holds particular meaning in the Mount Vernon/Lee districts with the presence of Fort Belvoir and its ever increasing importance since the terrorist attacks. Those events also accentuated the perpetual tug-of-war between the interests of the community and the military during 2003.

During his presentation at Hyland's 2003 Town Meeting, Col. T.W. Williams, Garrison Commander, Fort Belvoir, noted, "Those at Fort Belvoir are truly your neighbors. Many who work at the installation live in the community." But, that does not ease tensions when the interests of the two worlds collide.

Three primary examples of that have been: the potential loss of the baseball fields used by the Woodlawn Little League for the past 35 years which are located on Fort Belvoir property; the closing of Woodlawn Road which has exacerbated traffic congestion in the area and has been cited as one of the causal factor for the decline in revenue to Inova Mount Vernon Hospital; and the continuing escalation in security and gate restrictions due to the ever-changing demands on Force Protection at the base.

In the case of the McNaughton Memorial Ballfields, Col. Williams at Hyland's Town Meeting promised, "We will work out a solution." This became a reality in 2003. That solution resulted in a "land swap" exchanging 21 acres of county land for 12 acres of Little League baseball fields.

As described by Hyland at the formal exchange by the County Park Authority, "This exchange is a remarkable example of cooperation between the Federal and County governments... this transaction will result in the exchange of ... land under the ownership of the Park Authority (known as the Berman Tract) for the addition of four ball fields with full amenities...for the use of County citizens."

Woodlawn Road closing remains a thorn to both the Army and the community. It remains closed with no indication that will change in the foreseeable future.

In fact, it was the central topic of a special "Town Meeting." Several hundred concerned citizens from the Mount Vernon and Lee districts congregated at Hayfield High School last year to discuss transportation issues relating to Fort Belvoir and vent their ire on the Woodlawn Road situation.

It was chaired not only by Hyland and Kauffman but also by a host of other elected officials such as U.S. Representatives James P. Moran (D-8) and Thomas M.Davis, III, (R-11), State Senator Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-36), State Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44), and then Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Katherine K. Hanley (D) and its present chairman, Gerald E. Connolly (D).

THERE WERE ALSO positive developments related to Belvoir which will benefit the community at-large. Two of those were the relocation of the Army Materiel Command (AMC) and the announcement that the permanent home of the new U.S. Army Museum will be created just outside the post. Both of these will increase the economic viability of the area.

AMC and its 1,300 employees, began its formal move to Belvoir in November from its previous headquarters on Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria, where it had been for 30 years. It will not only bring a substantial new work force to the base but also their buying power to the Mount Vernon/Lee districts.

Billed as a significant tourist attraction of the future, the planned National Museum of the U.S. Army was officially launched this past fall with activation ceremonies at Fort Belvoir. That ceremony formally established the museum project office and set in motion the fund raising campaign necessary to build the proposed project.

Cost estimates ranged up to $200 million, most of which is to be raised from private donations. Initial seed money of $2 million was included in Congress's recently passed Defense Appropriation Bill.

The museum will trace the entire history of the U.S. Army from the American Revolution to the present day. It will encompass more than 100,000 square feet of gallery space, an auditorium, a possible IMAX theater, classrooms, and a host of other features such as a gift shop and restaurant.

As noted in a presentation to the Military Officers Association this past year, Belvoir is a city in itself. It covers 13.5 square miles, has 160 miles of roads, 1,350 buildings, 2,070 housing units, a regional hospital, fire and police departments, shopping center, post office, airport, elementary school, parks and recreation sites, and a variety of community services. Over the past decade more than $1 billion has been invested into its enhancement. That is expected to double in the decade ahead.

ALL OF THIS HAS a marked impact on one of the main priorities of both Hyland and Kauffman — the revitalization of the Route 1 corridor. There were a number of advancements toward that goal throughout 2003.

*Progress was made on the redevelopment of the combined Mount Vernon Plaza/South Valley Shopping Center complex. Previously known as Hybla Valley Center, the two aging centers went under contract to Federal Realty last year. Future plans have not been formalized.

*Other new commercial additions along the corridor during 2003 included a new Gold's Gym, a new Target, a revamped and upscaled Krispy Kreme. These were complimented by new housing projects, restaurants, and office buildings with more on the drawing boards.

*Kings Crossing design moved closer to reality with several public meetings and a growing consensus on a future design.

Primary to this entire effort is making Richmond Highway more user-friendly to both pedestrians and vehicles alike. In that vein, an expenditure of $1 million was approved by the County Board of Supervisors to partially fund the Richmond Highway Public Transportation Initiative.

This initiative was developed based on a Route 1 Corridor Bus Study conducted by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. It is a $45 million program to upgrade transit services and facilities along the corridor.

Another element of the user-friendly approach, which advanced last year, was the Centerline Design Study. The construction necessary to make the study more than just a study, however, is not expected to begin for another five years due to budgetary constraints at the state level.

AS ELSEWHERE throughout the region and nation, the overriding concern in 2003 was emergency preparedness. This applied to the Mount Vernon/Lee area as well. There were emergency preparedness drills by first responders, at the Mount Vernon Estate, at local medical centers, and elsewhere.

Public Safety was the theme of Kauffman's Annual Town Meeting at Lane Elementary School. Presentations were framed as "Post 9-11 Roles For Our Professionals and Our Community." But, as one citizen phrased it at that meeting, "How prepared are we if we can lose all the water plants at once?"

That questioned pertained to an area emergency not wrought by terrorists or a foreign power, but by Mother Nature. It was named Hurricane Isabel.

On the night of September 18 and throughout the next 24 to 36 hours, the Potomac River engulfed a vast portion of the Belle View condominium complex. All 65 buildings suffered some water damage. The depths within the units ranged from six inches to six feet.

When the water receded, residents were faced with millions of dollars of damage and the loss of many personal items that could not be replaced. They were also greeted with aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Originally located at the Nannie Lee Center in Alexandria, the two Federal agencies moved their emergency aid office to the South County Government Center. They were joined by representatives of the American Red Cross, the Virginia Employment Commission, Fairfax County government, and various volunteer organizations.

As Jim Morris, chief, Franconia Station, Fairfax County Police, told the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce prior to Isabel's arrival, "Crisis planning is not limited to terrorism. It applies to floods, storms, major accidents, and circumstance that require emergency actions."

Unfortunately, it was put into practice last September.

AMONG THE MORE positive events of 2003 were:

*The formal dedication of the Mount Vernon Government Center on Parkers Lane. Housed within the center is the Mount Vernon District Headquarters of the Fairfax County Police, the office of the Mount Vernon District Supervisor, and a large community room.

*Advancements in reshaping the former Lorton Prison site into the community of Laurel Hill. It will include the new South County High School, the Lorton Arts Center, a housing complex, athletic fields, expanses of open space for active and passive recreation, and various tourist attractions.

*The 20th anniversary of the Hollin Hall Senior Center. Having been a neighborhood school for nearly 34 years, on January 31, 1983, the building took on its new life with 35 seniors using three rooms. Today it boasts a registration of 1,600 with a daily population of approximately 180 enjoying activities in 17 rooms.

*Hyland's perennial fund-raiser, with the emphasis on fun, known as his Lobsterfest. For the 13th consecutive year, it was held under sunny skies after a morning rain that threatened to change that record. "It has never rained on this event," Hyland proclaimed as more than 700 supporters lined up for fresh Maine lobsters and his own clam chowder.

*After a long running battle between riders and their supporters with officials at Metro the first public restroom was installed at the Huntington Metro Station. A true marvel of modern science and technology, this stainless steel unit is on a one-year trial basis to determine if others should follow. This event was a testament to the tenacity of Robert Brubaker, director, Metroped, and the efforts of Kauffman who serves on the Metro Board representing Lee District.

Finally, the beat went on for the mother of all construction efforts impacting the entire area — the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project and its adjunct, the Route 1 Interchange. Telegraph Road Interchange construction will not begin until 2008 following completion of the other two.

Bids for the Route 1 Interchange Project were opened in the closing weeks of 2003 with the low bid going to Tidewater Skanska, Inc., of Virginia Beach at $146.6 million. It is the largest construction contract let in the history of VDOT covering the department's largest single project ever awarded.

Work on the actual interchange is scheduled to begin in early 2004 with completion projected for 2009. However, many buildings were demolished and land cleared during 2003 in preparation for the new interchange.

Throughout 2003, major advances were made on construction of the new span and traffic patterns were drastically altered on the George Washington Memorial Parkway as preparations took place for the new urban deck that will traverse the beltway to connect South Washington Street with the parkway at Porto Vecchio condominiums.

Traffic is now limited to three lanes which alternate based on morning and evening rush hour demands.

In order to ease the increased pain to commuters the Project is kicking off two programs at the commencement of 2004 named "Bridge Bucks" and "Mission Possible." The latter is an outreach campaign designed to promote the former. Both are being heralded as "initiatives to keep commuters moving efficiently and safely."