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Land Use Demystified in Lee

Land-use committee has been a valuable resource in the decision-making process.

From the midst of complicated issues involving easements, zoning and waste-water management, a strange thing usually emerges in Lee District — a consensus.

The Lee District Transportation and Land Use Advisory Committee is a strange animal, to be sure, but when its over 40 members assemble for monthly meetings in the Helen Wilson Community Room at the Lee District Offices, they get down to the business of making the often thorny decisions regarding land use with surprising comfort.

"This is real-life democracy," said Paul Gagnon, president of the Land Use Advisory Committee (LUAC)

"It's kind of like barbecue spare ribs: It's sloppy, but well worth the effort. People will have an impact here, but they won't have an impact on the [Virginia] General Assembly or Congress."

Gagnon was appointed by Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) to his post in 1998, after running against Kauffman for the supervisor's seat. Gagnon soon found, however, that he and Kauffman saw eye-to-eye when it came to the philosophy of land use in the Lee District.

"We became friends and learned to trust each other, and we think a lot alike," said Gagnon. "We both want transparent and public processes to go on."

IN THE LATE 1970s, that goal — a transparent public process — brought together then-Supervisor Joe Alexander and members of various community associations to form the Land Use Advisory Committee, which was then and is now a subcommittee of the Lee District Association of Civic Organizations.

Bob McLaren, who moved to the Hayfield Farm community in 1976, soon took an active role on the committee, when his community asked him to join up to provide input about a proposed sanitary landfill. He has served on the committee ever since.

"This is somewhat unique across the country. I've really never seen such citizen input in the process," said McLaren, a retired Air Force officer.

The level of citizen involvement, said Kauffman, provides a valuable personal relationship to each and every project.

"I had the luxury of inheriting the process, but for an elected official to initially start this up, you have to get over giving up land use power. I have found that for Lee District the easing of the burden is far and away greater than any power lost," said Kauffman.

"It ties my hands, but I view it as being tied with a golden cord, because it truly does reflect through an exhaustive vetting process both the short and long term desires of Lee District's neighborhood."

What started as a committee geared toward citizen feedback has become much more than that in recent years.

"You've got a base of folks who are representative of the district and care about the district, and they want to make the right decisions for the future. I have great agreement with that group," said Rodney Lusk, Lee District's representative on the Fairfax County Planning Commission. What happens at the committee meetings is a no-nonsense approach to land-use decisions. Each applicant for changes to the county's planning or zoning code must receive approval from the Planning Commission, and ultimately the Board of Supervisors. In Lee District, the advisory board provides a sounding board for applicants to know how their plans will fare at the higher levels of government and a first line of defense for the residents of communities that will be affected by the proposed changes.

"Almost all the attorneys who work in this field recognize they need to come (to meetings)," said McLaren. "As a result, they're forced to work with the surrounding communities to make sure all the concerns are settled, or at least brought to a resolution."

AFTER APPLICANTS make initial contact with Lusk’s and Kauffman's offices, they are encouraged to bring their plans before the land use advisory committee for at least two meetings. A first meeting functions as an "FYI" meeting, where the committee members are informed of the plans, and the second meeting delves into the nuts and bolts of major issues with the plan.

Gagnon said his members, many of whom have more than 20 years of experience on the committee, can quickly get to the heart of the issues.

"They don't want commercial hype, which we get a lot of sometimes," he said. "Every developer thinks his development is a gift from God and wants to do a commercial for it, and we don't have a time for that."

As the years went by, the committee grew from a handful of regular members, to anywhere from 40 to 80 regulars, according to Gagnon. The committee is made up of representatives from recognized community associations throughout the Lee District. In addition to their experience, Gagnon said the committee members benefit from their variety of backgrounds and interests.

"It goes across the political spectrum. We have left wing, right wing and chicken wing," he said. "You can see it play itself out sometimes, some very strong (environmental) types, others who are very pro-business."

When the dust settles, the committee comes up with a decision each time — thumbs up or thumbs down. A thumbs down means, as Gagnon said, "in effect, the application is probably dead." A thumbs-up is a stamp of approval, which both the Lee District office and the Planning and Zoning office will definitely take notice of.

"If the group has been supportive of a project, that gives us feedback early in the process, even before the public hearing," said Lusk. "I'd say that nine times out of 10, or even 95 percent of the time, the recommendation that has been made by the group is the one that goes forward."

For Kauffman, the decision of the committee carries weight because he knows it comes with

Over the years, they've developed a level of expertise in anything from environmental impacts to transportation to issues of neighborhoods and historic preservation," said Kauffman. "It makes my life significantly easier, because the folks who have to live with change are the ones who have the direct voice."

THE LAND USE committee has evolved over time, according to Gagnon, because it has had to. In the past 10 years, land use cases in Fairfax County have become crucial for the county's schools, transportation and environmental backbone. One of the first things Gagnon said his committee asks developers is how the plans will affect those factors, and what the community thinks about it.

"I'm preaching the fact that this is an interactive community now, and what happens on Franconia Road affects Richmond Highway," he said. "We're all in this together."

Most recently, the large cases that the advisory committee has considered have revolved around the revitalization efforts in the Richmond Highway corridor at the district's eastern end, including planned mixed-use development by Madison LLP at the old Groveton School and "big box" retail in the Hybla Valley shopping center. Another decision recently will allow 40 single-family homes to be built on Gayfields Road, off Beulah Road in Kingstowne. In the case of a Marriott hotel in central Springfield, changes that the advisory committee suggested actually improved the finished product, according to Gagnon.

"They didn't like being told what to do. They actually got a better product," he said.

The bottom line, said Gagnon — a medical technologist at Inova Alexandria Hospital, who has also done work as a professional mediator — is having the chance to make decisions that will affect the community for years to come.

"This is the one place they can actually have an impact. This is the stuff you live by," he said. "This is your day-to-day stuff, your roads, your police and fire, traffic problems, air pollution. And you actually get a say in it.”