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Cheaper Homes, More Metro

Mount Vernon’s new planning commissioner has optimistic vision for the county.

Earl Flanagan has two visions. In one, Metro cars on the elevated tracks of the Yellow, Orange, Blue and Purple lines pull smoothly into tunnels carved through stations rising 20 stories overhead. The people that crowd onto the cars have taken the elevator down from their high-rise apartments. Flanagan’s second vision is more ambitious.

He wants to see more $100,000 homes in Fairfax County, enough to for the 50,000 residents he estimates have been condemned to rent forever because they can’t afford to buy for more.

Flanagan is Mount Vernon District’s new planning commissioner. He said his twin visions motivated him to apply for the seat of the retiring John Byers, who served for over 20 years as Mount Vernon’s representative on the county planning commission, the influential body that advises the Board of Supervisors on land-use issues.

“One of the things we haven’t done, or haven’t done successfully, is to plan for workforce housing,” Flanagan explained in an interview. Later, he added, “I think the planning process can contribute substantially to addressing what up to now has been a neglected process.” He said the number of houses allowed on a parcel of land is a carefully weighed element in all planning decisions, but the price the houses will be sold for, and who will be able to live in them, is left up to the builder. “We created categories of land use allowing the marketplace to dictate how those parcels will be used.” The result: McMansions.

“One of the great shocking things at the present time to me is that we only have 369 housing units in the county for under $100,000, and we’ve got about 50,000 households whose income is insufficient to buy any housing for more than $100,000. And of those 50,000 households, about 29,000 of them are renters. They are condemned to rent for the rest of their lives. No way can they enjoy the American dream of owning their own home unless a rich aunt dies and leaves them a big chunk of money so that they can make a big down-payment on one of these McMansions,” Flanagan said.

As a planning commissioner, he said he would encourage the county to use its undeveloped land, like 200 acres recently ceded to it by the school system, for houses that working class people can afford. “The [Board of Supervisors] says it supports workforce housing, but in the same breath it talks about selling land for top dollar.”

BEFORE JOINING the Planning Commission, Flanagan served on the county’s Transportation Advisory Commission. Referring to a newly released county plan for managing development around Metro stations, Flanagan said he would like to see planners take advantage of one aspect of Metro rail in Fairfax that is often viewed as a disadvantage: its location aboveground. Listing areas like Ballston and Clarendon, Flanagan said Arlington, which has underground Metro routes, has successfully developed dense residential areas and successful retail because it has put up buildings directly above its underground Metro stations. He said there is no reason Fairfax County can’t do the same. He called for the county to allow Metro to lease to developers the airspace above its stations. “People wouldn’t even have to go out of doors to get on the Metro.”

Flanagan, a native of Illinois, referred to the Prudential Building in Chicago, which sits above the tracks of the Illinois Central. “We’re still in the dark ages when it comes to some of those development techniques,” he said of Fairfax County. Because stations in Arlington are underground, Metro earns no money from the buildings above its stations. This would not be the case for aboveground projects. Flanagan estimated that Metro could earn millions, if not billions, from leasing deals, money that would not only fund the subway system’s current deficits, but allow it to extend its rail service throughout the region.

MOUNT VERNON DISTRICT SUPERVISOR Gerry Hyland said he chose Flanagan for the committee because of his history of service with the community. This includes serving on the county Transportation Committee, helping govern both the South-East Fairfax Development Corporation and the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations and serving on a list of task forces and advisory panels that runs nearly a single-spaced page. Flanagan, an architect by trade, has lived in the county for 33 years. He served in the artillery of Patton’s army in Europe in World War II. He worked as an architect and a planner with local government in Illinois before moving to the area and working for HUD. “Earl is a detail person. He does his homework. He’s prepared,” Hyland said.

“Earl is the man with history,” said David Dale, chairman of the MVCCA’s Planning and Zoning Committee and member of the panel appointed by Hyland to select the new planning commissioner. “He has been doing planning, land use, transportation, housing, environment for so many years. Unlike us mortals he remembers all the things that are happening and when they happened and who did it.”

“He has the history of how Mount Vernon District got to be the way it is now.”

Dale predicted Flanagan will be confronted by three pressing issues during his tenure on the board: BRAC planning, whether to turn Richmond Highway’s North Hill into a park or into affordable housing and how to push the revitalization of Richmond Highway.

“I’ve seen buildings come and go, but I haven’t seen economic revitalization. I haven’t seen excitement come into the area,” Dale said. “As planning commissioner he is going to be the architect of making that happen.” Dale said this means making sure residential zoning does not overwhelm commercially zoned areas.

FLANAGAN WILL BE replacing a local institution. “John Byers has been a magnificent planning commissioner for this district,” Hyland said. Hyland said when he was first elected 19 years ago, Byars offered to resign and allow him to choose his own planning commissioner. Hyland turned down the offer. “Since then John has been really my right hand person as far as planning and zoning and land use issues.”

“He’s a person who is incredible as far as going out and doing the site visits not only once, twice and in some cases three times,” Hyland said. “He has been accessible and has made it a point to make sure he listens to both sides of every zoning issue.”

Tim Sargent, another applicant for John Byer’s post, was not selected. But he was appointed to the commission, anyway, when Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (at-large) named Sargent to be the county’s At-Large Commissioner. Hyland said he instructed Flanagan to work closely with Sargent, who lives in the South County region of the district.

Dale said the choice between Sargent and Flanagan had been nearly a toss-up. “We’re actually tickled pink that both of them are now planning commissioners. We’re actually two-for-one here.”