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Votes

Opposite Ends on Borderlands

Task force hears arguments for low and high density development along Hunter Mill Road.

The biggest hoots of the evening came when the general public was permitted to speak. Elizabeth Abiles was looking at a proposal that would bring 16 times the currently permitted density to an area along Hunter Mill Road.

“A lot of us bought here because we wanted a low density area,” she said.

Abiles pointed out that the area under study is part of what has been planned as a low-density buffer between Reston and Tysons Corner. She said she could not understand how a proposal for such a dramatic increase could be in keeping with the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan.

“I don’t think what we’re proposing conflicts with that,” said Elizabeth Baker, who is representing the developers WCI/Renaissance and K. Hovnanian.

The Aug. 24 meeting of the Hunter Mill Road Special Study Task Force was the first time that members of the public had been permitted to say anything, although it was only the second meeting where the task force discussed land use issues.

The task force, comprised of 10 members each from the Hunter Mill and Dranesville districts, began meeting in June. The Board of Supervisors established the group to study a 315-acre area around the intersection of Hunter Mill and Sunset Hills roads. The Comprehensive Plan calls for the area to be developed at a density of one house per two acres.

The area has historically been the edge of the low-density buffer between Reston and Tysons Corner. Just west of the study area is the Lake Fairfax Business Park, to the east is over three miles of low density housing.

Part of the study area includes the 115-acre Bachman Farm, just south of Lake Fairfax Park, which has an already approved plan for 52 homes, but is undeveloped. Also included is the Golf Park at Hunter Mill driving range and other land between the Bachman Farm and the Dulles Toll Road.

The study was prompted by several proposals to change the Comprehensive Plan to allow additional density. Other proposals to increase density in the area have been rejected numerous times over the past 20 years, most recently in 2002.

The proposals that started the study, however, are essentially off the table. Unlike a traditional process in which a citizen group can only make a yes or no vote on a proposal, this special study allows for more flexibility. The task force could recommend that a high-density project like Baker’s was the best choice. It could also decide that no change or an entirely different option was the best choice.

Whichever it will be, that recommendation will likely be the result of a community visioning process, similar to a charette, which is set to take place later this fall. The task force will make a non-binding recommendation that will go before the Fairfax County Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisors, which will make the final decision on any replanning.

The task force has heard a presentation about each of the proposals to get a sense of what kind of ideas about the property are already in play.

Baker’s proposal would bring approximately 1,800 housing units (split between condos, townhouses and detached) and 50,000-100,000 square feet of retail space to the 226-acre portion of the land that her clients control. Some of the buildings would be at least four stories tall, although Baker and Matthew Lessard, the project architect, were unsure of just how tall they would need to be. The property, planned for one house per two acres, would otherwise have just 113 homes.

The area, said Baker in a separate interview, is one of the few large, undeveloped parcels left in Fairfax County. It is also next to an interchange on the Dulles Toll Road and will be relatively close to the proposed Wiehle Avenue Metro stop.

She did not call the project “Transit-Oriented,” acknowledging that it is too far away from the station to have that distinction. Instead, she wants to call the project “transit friendly.”

This location, she argued, makes the area ripe for more intense development than is currently planned. “We believe strongly that the property is underutilized and underplanned,” Baker said.

Some residents fear that this will simply be the first domino, and that by increasing the density in this area, it will muddy the line for where the higher density-area is supposed to end and open the door for increasing the density along the whole Dulles Corridor.

“This is clearly a plan that is way out there,” said Michael Alfano, who lives in a neighborhood abutting the study area.

“We believe, still, that it makes a lot of sense,” Baker replied. She noted that other areas in the corridor are already developed and did not advocate any wholesale replanning of the area. “We think it’s a rare opportunity to have 226 acres.”

Residents of the Equestrian Park Subdivision also made a presentation to the task force. The subdivision was not included in the initial nominations, but was later added to the study area. Thirty-one of the 37 existing houses in the study area are in Equestrian Park.

Although John Palatiello acknowledged that it is sometimes appropriate to alter the Comprehensive Plan, it should be done with care. “The Comprehensive Plan must change only within the guiding principles,” he said. “The proposed plan violates the principles in spades.”

Palatiello was a Planning Commissioner representing the Hunter Mill District from 1993-2001, and voted against increasing the density of the area during his tenure. He is a paid consultant to Equestrian Park.

Palatiello argued in favor of maintaining the “greenbelt” around Reston, noting that decades of planning favor that approach. “There has been a community consensus to preserve and protect,” he said. “Once we knock down the domino here, we’re knocking down the domino for this entire residential swath,” he said.

The next meeting of the Hunter Mill Special Study Task Force is scheduled for Sept. 7, 7 p.m., at Lake Anne Elementary School in Reston.