The Future of Fairfax

The Future of Fairfax

Land use, development: clouds on the horizon?

In the grand scheme of Fairfax County development, two acres on O'Day Drive in Centreville was relatively small. The property was the last piece of low-density land in the midst of an area developed with townhouses.

But to some of the people who lived around it, the new houses meant a lot. "Nobody wants more development," Karen Wedekindt told the Board of Supervisors during the public healing.

Wedekindt went on to talk about her experiences during the development process. Officials with the county's Planning and Zoning Department, she said, were very helpful, but told her that no matter what the nearby residents want, the development would go through.

"I thought I had a voice," she said. "I don't."

She then accused the board of doing no more than pay lip service to the citizens while they kowtow to development interests. "I vote you to be my voice. You smile, listen and nod and then, I learn, you do what the developer wants," she said.

Since the beginning of Fairfax County Chairman Gerry Connolly's (D) term, land use and development projects have loomed with controversy.

In cases like O'Day, Board members argue that state law ties their hands, giving them few choices but to approve the developments. Smaller "infill" developments, like this one, have left some citizens feeling shut out of the process.

Larger projects such as MetroWest, a proposal to increase density along Hunter Mill Road and dramatic changes that Metrorail will bring to Tysons Corner have all generated strong feelings on both the pro-growth and slow-growth sides.

"A lot of this stuff was really coming to a head at the beginning of his chairmanship," said Charles Hall, one of the founders of Fairfax Citizens for Responsible Growth, often called Fairgrowth. "I think there was a long period in this county where people weren't paying much attention to a lot of these issues."

Connolly notes that even as the developments are smaller in size and frequency than they had been a few years ago citizens' interest is growing.

"I think there are a lot of concerns about development," Connolly said. "Ironically, there's a lot less development."

Fairgrowth grew out of citizen opposition to the MetroWest project, south of the Vienna Metro station. The project first surfaced while Connolly was Providence supervisor — it is in the Providence district. The Comprehensive Plan already called for a high-density project on the land, and Fairgrowth generally supported that plan.

But on Dec. 6, 2004, about a year after Connolly won the chairmanship, the Board unanimously voted to amend the plan to allow the Pulte Homes development, which will allow about 2,250 residential units, about 300,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 of retail. The plan is currently in the rezoning process, and a public hearing is scheduled before the Planning Commission in February.

It is this sort of "Transit Oriented Development" — clustering high density around existing mass transit nodes — that Connolly sees as the future of the county. Ideally, then, areas of the county without access to transit would be left at a relatively lower density.

"We need to look at the old patterns of growth and development and ask, 'Are we going to continue that?'" he said. "We have to make some choices that look different from what we've done in the past. ... I see a county that is increasingly diverse, but is more transit oriented."

Fairgrowth contends that the citizens of the county have not been fully included in this vision. Although some served on various task forces which studied MetroWest, some neighbors around the site of the proposed development felt left out of the process.

"I think it’s why this blew up, to some degree," Hall said.

Fairgrowth has started to expand, joining an assortment of other citizen groups to form the Fairgrowth Network. Although most of the groups are centered around Vienna, Tysons Corner and Reston, their collective reach has expanded.

"Fairgrowth did not invent dissatisfaction, we just gave people a voice," Hall said.

A perception that there is a lack of that "voice" is one of the major flaws that Hall sees so far in Connolly's chairmanship.

"It's a very widespread perception that Gerry Connolly and the county are both at a crossroads," Hall said. "People need to feel like they are a full partner in that discussion."

Connolly said that he reaches out to the county and attends the meetings of 300-500 different groups per year. Most of them are supportive of the sort of development patterns he advocates, he said.

“I believe the broad, broad swath of [the county] supports transit oriented development."

Hall acknowledges this. "I do think there has gradually been greater support [in the public] for Smart Growth," he said.

Hall sees some definite changes in Connolly recent months, however, and the beginnings of an opening in the process.

Developers WCI/Renaissance and K. Hovnanian had proposed allowing about 1,800 housing units and 50,000-100,000 square feet of retail space — sixteen times the currently permitted density — on a property along Hunter Mill Road. Some citizens in that area felt the project was a "done deal," but hundreds came out to protest it. The proposal was squashed and a citizen task force recently voted to recommend no change to the current, low-density plan.

Connolly, who has advocated protecting Hunter Mill Road from intense development apart from this project, agreed with the citizens. He publicly stated that high density in that area was not a good idea, even before the task force formally adopted the position.

"It was a very hopeful sign when he essentially repudiated the Hunter Mill development," Hall said.

It is that recognition of the public and reaching out to the public that Hall says Connolly should embrace as his term continues. "We actually think the community is ready for some compromise, even on the urban projects," Hall said. "If he extends an open hand to the community, he'll find us extending a hand back."

In some ways, Fairfax is paying a price for Connolly's policies, said Susan Turner, president of the McLean Citizen's Association. Connolly has been able to draw more businesses to Fairfax, but these have also brought with them additional workers.

"Gerry Connolly, using the [Economic Development Authority] as one tool, has done everything in his power to promote growth and a surge of people in the county," Turner said. "This has had a huge cost to the county."

Turner points to the additional stress on public facilities, such as roads, schools and parks and questions the value of bringing in still more people. "It's caused a decline in the quality of life."