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Swan Song for Midgetville

Board approves rezoning, 24 houses coming.

There's an urban legend surrounding the Wedderburn property that it is populated by retired circus midgets. So perhaps its appropriate that the hearing which would decide the fate of the area featured a bit of theater.

Props, monologues, pointed discussions, a cute child waving to the camera, a woman nearly in tears and a man making noises like a barnyard animal punctuated the three-hour public hearing which drew nearly 40 speakers from the neighborhood, other parts of the county and from as far as Washington, D.C. and Prince William County.

At issue is a rezoning application which will allow 24 houses to be built on the 12-acre property at the intersection of Cedar Lane and the Washington and Old Dominion Trail.

The Board of Supervisors approved the rezoning 9-0. Board Chair Gerry Connolly (D) was absent for the vote.

In making the motion to approve the project, Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) recounted the meetings she has had with members of the community who could get answers from county staff. "If these were not the answers people wanted to hear, we were at another impasse," she said.

She noted the many complexities and competing interests in the case before calling for the neighbors, on opposite sides of the issue to reconcile. "We have a neighborhood that's divided, and frankly no land use case is worth that," she said.

Now that the board has granted approval, the earliest that construction could start would be in the summer of 2006, said Greg Riegle, attorney for the developer.

The application has been in the works for about two years. Over that time period, a stream on the property was reclassified from year-round to intermittent, the comprehensive plan was amended to call for a different density, and the neighborhood was split over the merits of the case.

OPPOSITION AT the public hearing centered primarily around the stream reclassification and buffering from the trail.

The stream on the Wedderburn property had initially been classified as a perennial stream by the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

According to state law designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay, no development can occur with 100 feet of either side of a perennial stream.

Neighbors opposed to the development brought along newspaper articles about the way that stormwater runoff damages the bay and pasted the article to posterboards which they displayed to the board.

The developers, Elm Street, in conjunction with the property owners, the Wedderburn family, commissioned an engineering firm to study the stream.

Based on the private study, the portion of the stream on the property was changed to intermittent, stripping the stream of its protection. Once the stream leaves the property it is again considered perennial by Fairfax County. However, once it enters the Town of Vienna, it is considered intermittent.

On the property, the developer is providing a 50-foot buffer from the intermittent stream.

Some opponents attacked the process of declaring a stream intermittent. "I am absolutely incensed at the process for reclassification of the perennial stream," said Karen Hunt of the nearby Stonewall Manor neighborhood.

"There's a 26-point criteria to classify a stream but you don't have a similar process to declassify a stream," said Edward Eads, chair-elect of the Capitol Chapter of the Surfrider foundation.

Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) pointed out that the county's process was approved by the board after going through a full public hearing process.

"Even though something goes through a vetted public hearing process, that doesn't mean there might not be glitches in that process later down the road," Eads replied.

THE DISTANCE BETWEEN the new houses and the trail also upset some residents. The developer will provide a 40 foot buffer with plantings and the closest house will be 20 feet from that buffer — 60 feet from the trail. Many residents had asked for a 75-foot setback. The county has no specific regulation about how far a house should be from the trail.

Residents said that the new houses will be densely packed and too close to the trail and will disturb the scenery of the trail. The houses will be "side-by-side like fat little pigs in a pen — snort, snort, snort," said Steve Ordun, a nearby resident.

Smyth pointed out that in neighborhoods along the trail, distances vary greatly. "We seem to have a wide range of where houses are setting with regard to the W&OD trail," Smyth said.

Roughly the same number of neighbors who came to speak were in favor of the development. They noted the amenities that the developer is providing on the W&OD trail and other potential public benefits.

Richard Kuhlthau, a nearby resident read the testimony of Edward Blum, another nearby resident. He called the land "messy and overgrown."

At least one member of the board agreed when later in the evening Penny Gross (D-Mason) said the area was "blighted" and "cried out for redevelopment."

Peter Knect lives next to the property and has enjoyed the secluded view that its trees give him from his yard. He said he knows that view is really just borrowed from the property owners and he respects their decision to develop. "We're just grateful for them having loaned it to us for all these years."