Rebecca Dunham has got a foot in both Fairfax and Arlington counties. When she moved into her Cape Cod house on South Greenbrier Street in Arlington’s Claremont neighborhood four years ago, she called the Fairfax County utility company to turn on her water and Arlington County to start her sewer service. Arlington County trash trucks serve her side of the street, Fairfax trucks the other. In the morning, the Fairfax County school buses stop on her corner, even though Arlington's Wakefield High School is less than a block away.
So it didn't seem abnormal for Dunham to show up at the Fairfax County Planning Commission meeting last Wednesday to speak out against a proposed redevelopment at the corner of Route 7 and South George Mason Drive that would place 600 to 800 new apartments on fewer than 10 acres
The plan put forward by the developer, Fairfield Residential, would replace the single family homes and a vacant lot with three to five story apartment buildings bordered by Route 7, South George Mason Drive, Dinwiddie Street and South Fourteenth Street. The plan has split the surrounding neighborhood and revealed how land use planning differs in Arlington and Fairfax counties.
To Dunham, that much density would ruin her neighborhood’s small-town feel.
“I just don’t see how a community of maybe 100 families in the immediate area can skyrocket to 500 or 600 families and remain a community,” she said. A new Target store is under construction on the other side of Route 7 which will bring thousands more cars to the neighborhood.
Just around the corner from Dunham, on South 14th Street, lives Kevin Thomas. But unlike Dunham, he lives in Fairfax County. And he takes the opposite view concerning the proposed redevelopment.
“We need help,” he told the Planning Commission. “The neighborhood’s not what it used to be.”
Thomas has lived on South 14th Street since 1964, when he was a boy. Since then, he said, the traffic and the crime has gotten to the point where he doesn’t recognize the community in which he grew up.
“I hate to say it. It hurts me to say it but it’s over,” he said. “It’s not a neighborhood anymore.”
A new development would reinvigorate the area, he said, putting more law-abiding people on the street at night and maybe leading to some new turn lanes to help with traffic. Right now, he said, commuters use his street as a cut-through. And most of them have Arlington County stickers.
“Now when my kids visit I don’t let them cross the street,” he said.
It is a view shared by Elizabeth Baker, a land-use planner for Walsh Colucci, who is representing the developer.
“We believe that this type of development is going to help spur revitalization and that residential is the way to go for this particular site,” she said. “We think we can create a community that is very pedestrian-friendly.”
Less than 1,000 feet from the site is a point where Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria meet. The developer has already agreed to reduce the project’s intensity in response to the community’s concerns.
Fairfax County has been trying to lure development to the area for years but nobody showed much interest until now, said Janet Hall, Mason District planning commissioner who represents the site on the Fairfax County Planning Commission. When the developer first approached her with plans to redevelop the site, she made a point of inviting Arlington residents to the Mason District Land Use Committee meetings. At those meetings, she said, it was apparent that Arlington and Fairfax residents take a different approach to the land use process.
“Arlington and Fairfax County handle comprehensive plans differently and it was very hard for people in Arlington to understand the Fairfax way of doing things. It’s not one is good and one is bad. It’s just different.”
In this particular case, she said, the developer wants the county to amend its comprehensive land use plan to allow high-density development. Once the plan is changed, the developer still has to apply to change the zoning that governs the site. Applications for plan amendments don’t usually show much detail, she added. That comes during the second phase, when the commission examines the rezoning request.
But to David Hemenway, president of the Claremont Citizens Association, it makes no sense to put off the details until later.
“Arlington I know kind of looks at the whole package. They look at the big picture,” he said. “In Fairfax they first amend the comprehensive plan and then go about deciding whether or not that particular project would fit. If they put the picture together they’ll see it is not a viable alternative.”
Hemenway, who attended some of the meetings in Fairfax County, said Claremont residents agree that the parcel should be developed but “we are just concerned this might be a little too much.”
“They’ve come up with this idea and they haven’t done a traffic study,” he added.
After last Wednesday’s public hearing, the Planning Commission voted to defer its decision on the proposal until Sept. 22 to give nearby residents time to sort out their concerns with the developer. If the commission approves the plan amendment, the proposal will move to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.