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Neighbors Say Proposal 'Sprawl, Not Smart Growth'

Task force to be appointed will study large swath of land along Hunter Mill Road.

Feliza Kepler lives right on the border. Her property has a house with a barn for her horses set on a small hill with some woods. Just behind her land, a mid-rise office building sits. "I think they’re the best neighbors," Kepler said. "They’re not there when we’re there."

Kepler lives in the Equestrian park subdivision. To the west, the office buildings and industrial uses increase in density toward Reston.

To the east sits the Golf Park at Hunter Mill Driving Range and more large lots until the density begins to increase again at Tysons Corner. The residential area, Kepler said, is designed to act as a buffer between the two more urban hubs.

Following an act by the Board of Supervisors on March 21, a portion of the area, much of which is owned by Vienna-area resident John Thoburn, will undergo a "Special Study" to see if more density than is currently planned, one house for every 2-5 acres, is appropriate. "We want to see, what’s the larger thing that's happening here," said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who with Supervisor Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville) called for the study.

The entire area under consideration is roughly 314 acres, located just north of the Dulles Toll Road and South of Lake Fairfax Park. The land straddles Hunter Mill Road and encompasses the driving range.

The study was sparked by a nomination made during the North County Area Plans Review process. By state law, all jurisdictions in Virginia must review their comprehensive land-use plan at least once every five years. Fairfax County does this through the Area Plans Review process. The system splits the county into a northern and southern portion, and this year the northern part (including the Sully, Hunter Mill, Dranesville and Providence magisterial districts) was under review. The balance of the county will be reviewed next year.

During this process, any county resident can nominate any piece of land to be planned to be anything. In this case, about 226 acres (the Special Study area with the exception of Equestrian Park, The Reston Presbyterian Church and the VDOT facility) was proposed to have a dramatic increase in housing density, coupled with some neighborhood retail stores. [See sidebar].

Hudgins and DuBois thought that the proposal didn’t examine enough of the area and decided to call for the special study. "It’s done regularly in areas where we think the [Area Plans Review] application may isolate and not look at the larger area," Hudgins said. "It is better not to look at these things in isolation."

The Area Plans Review nomination, therefore, has been deferred indefinitely, pending the results of the special study. With the nomination off the table, Hudgins said the study group will have the opportunity to analyze more options. "The question on an [Area Plans Review] is, do you like it or do you not like it?" Hudgins said.

Some say that Hudgins and DuBois should not have created this study area. The decision should have been made within the bounds of the existing Area Plans Review Process. "We have a process that, this year, the two supervisors from Dranesville and Hunter Mill districts have decided that they want to inject a new feature in the process," said Jeanette Twomey, chair of the Hunter Mill Defense League.

Kepler said she also disagrees with the boundaries of the study area, which she says were arbitrary. If the buffer area is to be studied, she said, why not study all of it. "Why didn’t we go all the way to Route 7, where the boundary ends?" she said. "Those of us who live here are puzzled because we can’t find the logic."

Kepler said she would not automatically dismiss the idea of adding density to the area, but she hopes that the task force will be conducted openly, and not simply be used to find a way to justify additional density. "I think what the citizens most need is an open and frank and honest exchange between the citizens and the government officials so we can understand what their goal is," Kepler said.

A CHORUS of other neighbors in the area is saying that the current plan is best left alone. This section of the county, said Bruce Bennett of the Hunter Mill Defense League, has been repeatedly targeted for higher density development. The Hunter Mill Defense League, a group that advocates for preserving cultural and historical resources along Hunter Mill Road, has consistently said that the area should be left the way it is. "The Hunter Mill Defense League has supported the current Comprehensive Plan," Bennett said.

A portion of any new residents is likely to use Hunter Mill Road, which is already becoming increasingly congested as a north-south corridor in the central part of Fairfax County. The additional traffic would increase pressure to widen the road from two to four lanes. This widening, the league fears, would degrade sites of potential importance along either side of the road.

Steve Hull, who lives in the area, is also opposed to increasing the density and is particularly opposed to the Area Plans Review Nomination. "It’s a proposal to plant an island of high density in a sea of low-density," Hull said. "This is sprawl, not smart growth."

Tom Hirst, who developed the Equestrian Park subdivision and owns a stake in the Lake Fairfax Business Center, did not say if additional density would be good or bad, but he stressed the need for developing the road network in the area first. Particularly, he pointed to the intersection of Hunter Mill and Sunset Hills roads, which happens at the off ramp for the Dulles Toll Road. "The one thing that nobody should lose track of is that there is a severe congestion problem," Hirst said. "They’ve got to do the infrastructure improvements before you get the density."

The board action that authorized the special study included a provision stating that the study should "examine transportation issues including the planned realignment of Sunset Hills Road.

BOTH SUPERVISORS said that they do not currently know if they will support any changes. "I make no preconceived notions of any kind," DuBois said. She and Hudgins each plan to wait and see what recommendations the working group will come up with.

The group will consist of between 10 and 12 members, Hudgins said, split evenly between representatives from each of the two districts. Hudgins has begun to put out feelers to some people. "I have asked people if they would serve if appointed," she said.

Twomey and Hull are both opposed to the formation of such a task force. At least a portion of the task force will operate as a "charrette." Hudgins takes a positive view of that process. "It’s an intense visioning workshop that engages the community and its stakeholders," Hudgins said.

Twomey said that in this case a charrette will not serve the public good. "It's a way of distancing themselves [the supervisors] from a tradition of staff reports," Twomey said. Although the area has been nominated for a variety of different uses, Fairfax County Planning and Zoning staff have consistently supported the existing plan.

"The residents in this area are virtually unanimous in wanting not to go the charrette route," Hull said.

Meetings are set to begin in May and wrap up in the fall. If the group were to recommend any changes to the area, those plans would then move to the Planning Commission and finally to the Board of Supervisors for final approval. The land would then need to be re-zoned before any new development could take place.

Should any changes be made to the Comprehensive Plan, that does not mean that current residents will be compelled to redevelop their property.

Thoburn could not be reached for comment.