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Planning for Metrorail

A series of "transit villages" may be in store for the areas in Reston and Herndon where Metrorail stops will eventually be built.

Sometime in the next decade, passengers disembarking from a Silver Line Metrorail train in Reston and Herndon will be able to walk to offices, parks, stores, restaurants and apartment buildings sprinkled along the Dulles Corridor. At least that's Patricia Nicoson's vision.

Nicoson, a land use planner by trade and the president of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, has in mind a series of "transit villages" mushrooming around the four planned rail stations in the Hunter Mill district on land that is now used for low-density office parks. And although the train won't pull into any of the Reston stops until 2011 at the earliest, Nicoson and other local officials are working to make sure the land use plans for the corridor are in place.

In 2001, Nicoson and other members of a special task force rewrote the Comprehensive Plan for the part of the corridor bordered by Hunter Mill Road to the east and Elden Street to the west to accommodate high-density mixed-use developments. This summer, landowners applied to rewrite the plan for land that lies slightly outside the area covered by the 2001 review.

Also the Reston Association is helping to persuade landowners near the planned Wiehle Avenue stop to overturn a covenant from the early days of Reston that limits development near Wiehle Avenue to low-density commercial and industrial uses.

"It's going to be a kind of mixed-use environment that's not as dense as the [Reston] Town Center but that's denser than Lake Anne," Nicoson said. "I think it will be something that Reston residents who know the village center would be comfortable with."

THIS SUMMER'S Area Plans Review process (APR) for Hunter Mill district brought applications to change the land use plans for the intersection of Hunter Mill Road and the toll road and those for an area bordering Route 28 and Frying Pan Road. Both of those sites lie outside the area that was reviewed in 2001 but developers want them to be redeveloped at higher mixed-use densities even though they are not within a quarter mile of the proposed Metro stations, which land use planners consider to be walking distance.

"It's not necessarily tied to rail or anything else," said Mark Looney, an attorney for Cooley Godward representing Clark Realty, which is looking to build near Route 28.

The Clark proposal, along with a similar one from Pomeroy Investments, would create an 83-acre project, roughly the same area as the Reston Town Center.

Although the area is already planned for mixed-use, Looney said the intent of his application was to "put a little more detail and clarity into the plan."

"Look at it this way, we're basically dealing with how to implement another Reston Town Center. It's not going to be Reston Town Center, it's going to be hopefully something as good but we're talking that kind of timeframe."

About six or seven miles east of Looney's project, Washington Homes has applied to change the plan for 226 acres at the intersection of Hunter Mill Road and the Dulles Toll Road. That proposal would place thousands of new residential and office units over a mile away from the closest rail station at Wiehle Avenue.

Elizabeth Baker, a land use planner for Walsh Colucci, who is representing Washington Homes did not return a call for comment. Some in the neighborhood are opposing the proposal, saying it would worsen congestion in an area that is not going to be served by the rail line.

"The net volume of car traffic is going to increase because of these proposals," said Steve Hull, who lives on Sunset Hills Road about a quarter mile away from the site.

Hull has filed a competing application for the same site that would limit development to low-density office buildings if Sunset Hills Road were to be realigned.

HULL SAID he was skeptical of the plan to put high-density mixed-use developments near the Hunter Mill District rail stations.

"You really have to ask the basic question: What comes first the houses or the rail?" he said. "Are we building the rail to help solve congestion or are we building the houses to justify the rail and when you look at the densities that are being proposed we're spending $4 billion to solve the traffic problem but how many more vehicle trips are we adding?"

To Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), however, the 2001 plan changes are essential to reducing the number of car trips in the area.

"It means a town center but I'd say a transit-oriented development where the development around the station provides uses that meet the need to reduce vehicle travel around the stations," she said.

According to the 2001 plan, areas within walking distance to the new Metro stations would be redeveloped with housing, offices, retail and hotels. Although the densities would be higher than they are today, buildings would not be higher than 100 to 150 feet.

Hudgins also said that rewriting the area's land use plan was a way of demonstrating to the Federal Transit Administration that Fairfax County was serious about the need for a Metrorail line going out to Dulles Airport. In June, the FTA endorsed the project and released money for preliminary engineering. Local transportation officials are waiting for Congress to approve transportation funding legislation that they hope will include a $100 million annually to build the first phase of the Dulles Rail project, which will extend Metrorail to Wiehle Avenue.

AND THAT'S why Hudgins is pushing to amend the covenants prohibiting residential development at roughly 300 commercial properties near the planned Wiehle Metro stop.

"We must have the covenants removed in order to actually implement the plan with the residential piece in it," Hudgins said.

In order for the covenants to be changed so residential development can proceed, 90 percent of the property owners must agree on the amendments. However, the proposed changes have been stalled for more than a year at only 65 percent.

Majorie Krueger, who served as RA's liaison to the task force working to alter the covenants, said they can meet the required 90 percent vote if they can successfully enlist the aid of the largest property owners to help lobby the smaller owners.

"It won't be easy, but it's possible to do it," she said.

Two weeks ago, RA's Board of Directors voted to give the task force $1,000 to complete a legal review of their process and to help find a way to meet the 90 percent threshold.

"I'm optimistic," Hudgins said. "We have made several attempts at working with the Reston Association."

If the effort to change the covenants fails, a limited amount of residential properties can still be built in the area. One four-acre parcel of land along Sunset Hills Road, currently the site of an office park and storage facility, is exempt from the covenants barring residential development. That site is owned by Chuck Veatch, a Reston developer and a member of Reston's original real estate sales team.

REPLACING the existing office parks with higher density developments that combine apartments with offices and retail is part of a shift in how suburban communities approach their land use planning, said Looney.

"It's a maturation of suburban communities into more urban environments," he said. "If you think about the suburban communities that were planned 25 years ago or 30 years ago most of the jobs were in other places. Now as land becomes more scarce in Fairfax and Arlington you're seeing, particularly in Arlington but even in Fairfax, redevelopments of areas that were perhaps once only commercial or only residential into mixed use environments."