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Homeowners Lose Woodland

Open space greenery to become storage facility.

What was once a tree-covered hillside that served as a primary enticement for potential new home buyers is now a denuded mound of soil abutting their rear yards and rising above their $600,000-plus homes. And, it will soon become the site of a multi-level storage facility.

"I came home Christmas eve afternoon and found that neither my cable television nor my computer was working. Then I discovered that all the trees on the entire hillside behind my home had been bulldozed. And, in the process the cables had been cut," said Tim Landes, a resident of Carpenters Hall Drive in the Lorton Station development of Buttermier Heights.

"I want to know how this got approved by the county with no one telling us. We were told that that land was common property. We have even been trying to get it developed as park land but nobody told us it was owned by someone else," Landes said.

The plot in question is a three and one half acre site just off Pohick Road immediately past Lorton Station Boulevard and abutting the rear property lines of homes on Carpenters Hall Drive, a section of Lorton Station developed and marketed by Ryan Homes. Most of the properties are less than two years old, according to residents.

THE PROPERTY has been zoned I-4 for industrial use since 1969, according to Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gearld "Gerry" Hyland. Public Storage, Inc., a California based firm, has owned the property for about a year and half, according to Sung Ku Roh, construction project manager, Public Storage, Inc.

There is no question that Public Storage, Inc. is well within its rights to develop the land, according to Hyland. "Being as this is an I-4 zoned piece of land it can be developed for the intended use by-right," said Sam Butz, partner, Butz-Wilbern, the McLean based architectural firm designing the facility for Public Storage, Inc.

"In 2001 Public Storage sent out notices to the developers of the land on Carpenters Hall Drive informing them of their intentions to build a facility on the plot. However, there were no homes there at the time," Butz said.

Landes and others, during a meeting last Friday with Hyland, representatives of Public Storage, representatives of KSI, original owners of the land who sold it to various residential developers, maintained that they were never made aware of the potential industrial use when they purchased their homes from Ryan Homes.

"I went to the Ryan sales office, looked at the maps, and then bought my home from an original buyer who flipped it as soon as it was completed. That map never indicated anything other than the plot now being developed was to be for common open space," Landes said.

"In early January I finally got hold of Hyland. His was the first feedback we got from anyone. Once I got hold of him he said he would contact Public Storage and see if the development could at least be made more attractive," he said.

PRIOR TO THAT response from Hyland a letter had been sent to him by concerned residents protesting the use of the land for an industrial purpose and accusing KSI and Ryan homes of misleading them from the outset. It said in part, "The residents were never informed or properly notified by Fairfax County or the Lorton Station Community Developer (KSI or Ryan Homes) that land behind our homes was zoned as I-4 Industrial ..."

"They have allowed an out-of-state company to recklessly sweep-in without warning and begin to clear-cut the tall pines and oaks in our backyards on the afternoon of Dec. 23 and 24 knowing residents would have no recourse due to the holidays."

The letter further stated, "This irresponsible and possible illegal action will have numerous negative impacts ... that include public safety concerns for the entire community, environmental impacts, and the complete devaluation of our homes."

Residents also claimed in their letter that storage facilities are "typically associated with crime, homelessness, vehicle traffic and noise pollution." As a solution the letter's authors proposed, Fairfax County, Ryan Homes and KSI "ban together to repurchase the land ... rezone the land as Fairfax County Park and replace the numerous trees that have been destroyed."

In closing, they said, "For the price of two or three average homes in the Lorton Station Community the land could be repurchased from SEI. Small price to pay for a safer community."

MICHELE PETROVICH, a Carpenters Hall Drive resident and signator to the letter, asked Hyland at last Friday's meeting, "Since this is not built yet why can't we make changes?" As an employee of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she also said, "There are serious concerns about public storage facilities being so close to rail facilities given the present national security situation." The parcel is adjacent to CSX rail lines.

Following the site visit Petrovich reiterated, "The residents ... were told by Ryan Reps that the land behind our homes was common and would not be moved. We accepted this fact in good faith."

She also said, "This sort of action, industrial land that butts-up against residential, has become commonplace in Fairfax County and is a direct result of the poor leadership and irresponsible decisions made by Fairfax County Supervisor Hyland. Apparently, big business is more important than Fairfax County residents who are affected by such action."

As a result of Landes' contact, Hyland convened last Friday's meeting with residents and others at the site. During that gathering Hyland reiterated that Public Storage was well within their rights. But, "We're waiting to see if the designers can make the site more attractive and move the proposed building closer to the road further from the back yards."

PRESENT PLANS call for a two-story building of approximately 96,000 square feet. Due to the topography the building will be two stories in the rear, abutting the Carpenters Hall Drive homes, and one story at the entrance to the site off the unnamed access road that intersects with Pohick Road. Actual construction of the facility is expected to start in four to six weeks, according to Public Storage,Inc.

"There will be a 24 foot road that circles the building allowing tenants access to their storage areas. It may be possible to move the building more toward the access road and we can increase the landscaping to make it more attractive to the residents," Butz said. His firm has designed facilities for Public Storage, Inc. from Massachusetts to Florida, he acknowledged.

"We need to find a way to make this less obtrusive to the residents who live behind it. The other matter that needs to be addressed is how we got here in the first place. Why Ryan Homes did not fully inform the buyers of the status of that plot behind them," Hyland said.

When contacted for comment as to why Ryan Homes representatives had not informed potential buyers of the status of the plot in question, Keith Neiman, market manager vice president, Ryan Homes, said, "The only way we deal with the press is through the submission of written questions. We will get back to you after we have evaluated them."

However, Cassie Cataline, vice president, Marketing, KSI, the original owners of the land on which the homes now stand, said, "We sold the lots to various home builders and we don't control those home builders."

Cataline also said, "We have no direct contact with home owners. KSI was the master developer. We put in the infrastructure but had nothing to do with the home sales. KSI made no representations to the home owners."

Following Friday's meeting, Public Storage representative Sung Ku Roh said, "We are willing to work with the neighborhood. Where ever we build our facilities we want to be good neighbors. I have sent a series of suggestions to my vice president in California based on our financial and feasibility considerations. I expect he will be getting back to Mr. Hyland."

DENISE DAVIS, another Carpenters Hall Drive resident, who's husband recently retired from the military, said during last Friday's site visit, "This is our first home and we invested our life savings. It's a matter of trust and I feel I was not told the truth by the developers. I woke up Christmas eve morning and found all the trees gone."

She also claimed that the descriptive map on the wall at the Ryan Homes sales offices portrayed the plot in question "as part of our community. I would like Ryan Homes and KSI to come forward to address this and make it right. But, their reaction has been that they have done nothing wrong. To me they misrepresented the land."

Hyland responded, "This is not the only place in the County where land zoned residential abuts land zoned for industrial use. But, you have my commitment to do what ever I can to help expedite any changes that are possible to make this less objectionable to the community."

As Landes said, "I bought my home because it backed up to this tree covered area and because Carpenters Hall Drive is a closed-end street with less traffic. I have two kids and I thought it would be safer for them and a good place for them to play close to home."

Landes again maintained that Ryan Homes told him, when he was looking for a home, that the land behind his home was common land. "Everyone assumed it was community property. Next time I'll know better and search the status of the land all around me before I buy rather than trust the developer," Landes said.