When does the public get the chance to talk? That was the overriding question the Hunter Mill Special Study Task Force wanted answered during its Sept. 7 meeting at Lake Anne Elementary School in Reston.
The task force is gathering citizen input to help it form a recommendation on how to develop roughly 300-acres of land surrounding the intersection of Hunter Mill and Sunset Hills roads. The 20-member group has been meeting since June and is charged with making its recommendation by December. The non-binding recommendation will then be forwarded to the Fairfax County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors which will each host its own public hearing.
The area being studied is on the boundary between the higher-density of Reston, and the low-density buffer which surrounds it. It has been planned for a maximum density of one house per two acres for more than 20 years. Over that time, multiple attempts have been made to increase the allowable density, but each has been rejected.
Last year, WCI/Renaissance, which controls about 226 acres of the area, suggested a development of about 1,800 housing units. The current density allows for a little over 100. The proposed density amounts to just under eight houses per acre — 16 times the current allowable density.
Supervisors Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) and Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville) formed the task force to study the area. The task force is not constrained by the proposals. It may recommend no change, a density as high or higher than that envisioned by WCI/Renaissance, or something in between.
In order to help with the process, the county hired consulting firm Circle Point (for $29,990) to help develop a process for public input. W. Steve Lee, senior project manager with Circle Point, explained the process to the task force and roughly 60 others in attendance.
Lee first plans to conduct a series of focus-group style interviews with groups he identified as stakeholders: businesses, the faith community, pedestrian/bike interests, schools (parents) and representatives from various county and community land use and transportation committees.
Noticeably absent from the list of stakeholders were homeowners and nearby residents, a fact that was brought up by several task force members. Neighboring residents have said they are largely shut out of the process. They have, however, had an opportunity for oral comment and have been able to submit written comment.
Lee said he did not want to call for a group of homeowners because they are likely to be the largest constituency at the large public meeting on Oct. 1. He said he wanted to hear from these other, smaller groups who might otherwise be shut out of the process. “I’m trying to be inclusive,” Lee said.
“We’re not allowed to speak now,” shouted Eric Wolf from the audience. Wolf lives in the Equestrian Park subdivision, which had not been the subject of any proposal to increase density, but was included in the special study area by the Board of Supervisors.
Several task force members objected to Lee’s proposal. The homeowners, they said, should be given a greater weight in the process, if only because there are more of them. “We’re just getting the impression that you are weighting the two equally,” said task force member Don Skidmore.
“You are disenfranchising the majority,” said Jack Mansfield.
Lee said he was gathering as much information from as many sources as he could. “You will get back from me whatever anyone has to say,” Lee said. “I’m not going to give them weight. That’s your job,” he said.
A majority of the task force still wanted to give the homeowners a voice in the focus group portion of the study. Adding another focus group to the list is not an option due to financial and time constraints, so the task force decided to form a subcommittee that will remove one of the existing focus groups and replace it with a group of homeowners.
Lee hopes to have each of the focus groups interviewed by Oct. 1.
Lee also explained the format for the “community visioning exercise,” set to begin Oct. 1. The meeting will be open to anyone who wishes to attend, and is planned to be the major opportunity for community input during the process.
The meeting will start with introductory remarks and include a presentation of existing conditions. The group will then be broken up into small discussion groups that will each discuss how it sees the area developing, or remaining the same, in the future.
The different small groups will then submit their ideas to Lee, who will analyze them. “From the list of ideas, there may emerge themes,” he said.
These themes will then be submitted to the task force and others during a second workshop set for Monday, Oct. 17. From this workshop, Lee expects to be able to present the task force with a “vision document” outlining possible scenarios for future development of the site.
The document will then go to the task force to assist in developing its recommendations about the area. “The task force is supposed to be the beneficiary of the results,” Lee said.