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Votes

Split Council, Split City

Heated debate over high-density residential condominiums will come to a temporary end Sept. 12 when council votes to approve or deny the developer’s application.

A drive down Route 50 through Fairfax includes plenty of sightseeing, if you like looking at buildings, restaurants, signs, car dealerships and stores. One little strip of land along the road, however, is full of life with trees, streams and open space. Residents of the bordering Mosby Woods neighborhood want to keep it that way.

The group of people petitioning to stop the building of high-density condominiums on the green space they have come to love so much is the Mosby Woods Improving Our Quality of Life Coalition, led by Spencer Cake, an open-space advocate. City Council had a work session meeting, July 25, that briefly looked at the developer’s application, but the permit won’t come up for approval until the Tuesday, Sept. 12 meeting. Since the council rejected putting an open space initiative on the ballot this November, residents are scrambling to do what they can to prevent more of what they say is unnecessary development in the city.

“It’s one little green stretch there that hasn’t been developed,” said Forrest Kneisel, a nearby resident who has helped gather signatures for the petition. “I’d like to see it stay green.”

The piece of land has come to be known as Rocky Gorge. The name of the land is actually called the Stafford property, and the name of the applicant is Rocky Gorge. The land is located between the Sunoco Station and Eaton Place on the north side of Route 50. At the work session in July, councilmembers heard changes made to the application since the applicant took it before planning and zoning. It has been amended nine times since the initial application two years ago, but that isn’t enough for open-space advocates who want to see the application disappear.

“I have nothing against condominiums for elderly people,” said Shelly Vance, a Cambridge Station resident who has helped with the petition. “I think the city has so few open spaces left. Once the woods are removed and something is built, it’s very hard to return it to a natural conservation area.”

MAYOR ROBERT LEDERER said he sees no valid reason why this development should be built. Initially, the developers conducted a survey in the Mosby Woods community, said Lederer. About 70 people responded to questions asking whether residents would prefer more traffic or less; a 50-foot condominium or 60-foot; a residential development or commercial, and many other questions that left residents choosing the lesser of two evils, said Lederer. When developers told the council that the community was generally in favor of the development, they used the survey results as evidence.

“What they didn’t tell everyone is there were only like 70 responses, based on misleading questions,” said Lederer.

The condominiums, if approved, would not be a mixed-use development, as previously planned. The applicant has also added an age restriction of 55 and older for potential residents. This new age restriction is just a fluffy way to please people though, according to Lederer, since the majority of the people who would be able to afford the condos would fall into that age category anyway, just as they do at the Providence Square condominiums.

The development plans show that the condominiums would be clustered toward the front of the property, the part nearest to Route 50, and the back portion of the property would remain untouched, thus spared as open space. Eighty percent of the land that would be given back to the city as open space is automatic, said Lederer, since it is undevelopable land. This is just another misleading way councilmembers are trying to elicit support for the project, he said.

“That is floodplain,” said Lederer. “It can’t be built on no matter what.”

What would be built is a 160,000-square-foot residential condominium, with an average roof height of 50 feet. The slanted design of the building actually means that some parts of the roof would be around 60 feet in height.

Lederer said four councilmembers are just practicing politics. He thinks the development will be approved at the Sept. 12 meeting by a 4-2 vote, since four councilmembers received political endorsements from the developers, in exchange for support of the project, before this year’s May 1 election.

“I think it’s a really nasty, dirty, little political insider thing,” said Lederer. “They’ll vote for this, then they’ll start voting against every project up and down the [Fairfax Boulevard] corridor, even if it makes sense.”

That is what the coalition is trying to prevent. By seeking city residents who oppose this development and support open space, Cake has led a group of volunteers into seeking signatures throughout the city, not just in Mosby Woods. What he’s found is that people really do care, regardless of where they live. Cake said he’s even turned away signatures because non-city residents wanted to sign the petition.

“I don’t know how much of a done deal it is,” said Vance. “Is there a magic number of signatures? I really don’t know.”

AFTER SPENDING the majority of his weekends throughout the month of August collecting signatures with other volunteers, the coalition is approaching its 1,000-signature goal. About 800 people have signed, giving the coalition another two weeks to come up with 200 more.

“Several people have stood up and spoken,” said Kneisel. “I realized I wasn’t just a lone voice. [With our] like minds, it seems like maybe, hopefully, we’ve got a chance of getting the city council to change their minds.”

“I’ve been in politics for 30 years, and I don’t remember 1,000 petitions [signatures] on anything,” said Lederer. “If council decides to ignore that kind of feedback, then shame on them.”

Lederer didn’t say which four councilmembers he was referring to. The four members who opposed putting the related issue of an open space referendum on the November ballot were Councilmembers Patrice Winter, Joan Cross, Gary Rasmussen and Jeff Greenfield.

"It's really unfortunate that the two [issues] have become intertwined," said Cross. "I support Rocky Gorge, and I will vote for it."

The open space referendum issue drew in many of the same community members who are speaking out against the Rocky Gorge application, and some of them are speculating that the same four councilmembers who voted against the referendum will be the ones to approve the project.

On why Greenfield voted against the open space referendum, he said if the two issues — Rocky Gorge and the open space referendum — weren't related, then there was no need to push through for the referendum for this election. Greenfield thinks the council should establish another open-space selection committee as it did in the past, and come up with parameters for which properties in the city might qualify for open-space purchases.

LEDERER SAID some of the councilmembers exchanged support for the project for political endorsements from the developers in last May's election. Cross, Rasmussen, Greenfield and Winter all deny that claim, but said there was some indirect, unsolicited political support from the Mosby Woods Civic Association, which has widely supported the residential development on the Stafford property.

"I had absolutely no involvement with the developers," said Cross. "There was an endorsement I received from a faction in Mosby Woods who favors the project ... they endorsed those candidates who favored their position on Rocky Gorge. I received no [campaign] money."

"I didn't get any money from them [developers]," said Rasmussen. "I did put a [campaign] sign on the property, but I always have put signs on that property."

Rasmussen said he clearly favors residential development on that property over commercial, because he said it's better for the neighborhood, and it adds a new element along the Route 50 corridor. Rasmussen, however, has not made up his mind on whether he will vote for the project, he said. Greenfield and Winter both said they go into everything with an open mind, and they haven't yet decided which way to vote.

"I keep an open mind; I do my homework," said Greenfield. "I have walked in [to meetings dealing with other issues] thinking I was going to do one thing, and after hearing testimony and dialogue, have changed my mind."

"Sometimes things come up that no one has thought of," said Winter. "I want to be as fair as possible to the city-at-large."

Cross said she thinks the project is a "very useful piece in the puzzle," because she thinks it's a modestly sized project, senior-friendly and she doesn't think it will have "that great an impact on the traffic pattern."

"I think it is just the best use of the land," said Cross.

If candidates did make an arrangement to support something Lederer said is "a bad project for the City of Fairfax," then it's just bad politics, said Lederer.

“I call it political arrogance,” said Lederer. “It’s everything wrong with the process.”

The coalition is optimistic that its voice will be heard, and council will “do the right thing,” said Cake. The coalition and other petition-signers want people to show up at City Hall on Sept. 12 to speak out against the councilmembers who may have agreed to politics before thinking about the will of the city.

“It would be nice if we could fill the room with supporters,” said Cake.

“I thought this council understood the heartbeat of the community, but they just don’t get it,” said Lederer. “This is a fight for the future vision in the City of Fairfax.”