Pinch by Pinch by Pinch

Pinch by Pinch by Pinch

Citizen’s associations question collective impact of zoning waivers

The June meeting of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizen’s Associations, held at the South County Government Center on June 28, was marked by a surge of protest against waivers issued by the Fairfax commissions of Planning and Zoning and Public Works and Environmental Services. The waivers under discussion are requested when construction is in progress. They are typically granted the day after the request, with no input from the community and without the knowledge of district supervisors until after the fact, according to David Dale, chairman of the council’s Planning and Zoning Committee.

But the meeting began with an update from Supervisor Gerry Hyland. He spoke about developments with BRAC and the floods in Huntington. Hyland said he and other county board members were disappointed with the briefing they received from planners of the BRAC redevelopment at Fort Belvoir.

Belvoir planners presented three options for grouping the new buildings. But Hyland said they could not produce any traffic impact studies to demonstrate how each plan would affect traffic in the surrounding area. In addition, planners had no information on how any new transportation infrastructure would be funded. Hyland said he chose to support a plan that scattered the developments across various posts. But he did so only because, in the absence of any hard information, common sense suggested this would create the most manageable traffic patterns.

Hyland also said he was concerned the Army would construct office buildings for many civilian workers on military property, reducing the area’s revenue from the BRAC expansion while still requiring it to provide the necessary traffic infrastructure. “What we will get is the opportunity to get them on that land and off that land with no tax benefit to us,” Hyland said.

Association co-chairman Robert Reynolds suggested that Hyland ask Senator John Warner (R) to influence construction plans for civilian offices. Hyland said he would do so. Warner has been influential in the BRAC process through his position as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee

HYLAND also addressed the Huntington flood. He said United Community Ministries had agreed to administer a special fund for flood victims. He listed possible reasons the flood may have occurred, several related the Wilson Bridge Project, as well as overdevelopment along Alexandria’s Eisenhower Road and overflow release from Lake Barcroft.

He added that the sewage that tainted the flood water had initially led him to wonder whether the county’s sewer system had failed. He said this would have meant the county would be responsible for repairing the damage to people’s homes, an outcome Hyland said he would have welcomed. However initial reports indicated the sewers were not the cause.

When Hyland finished, Dale took the opportunity to raise the specter of the many stormwater waivers that have been issued to builders in the area. He said these many small waivers added up to produce massive stresses on local watersheds.

Dale described his son’s excitement when heavy rains rolled in. He said he and his son would watch Quander Brook, which runs behind his house. Within minutes of the first rain drops, a brook that is usually little more than a trickle rises several feet into a torrent of water. Dale said that small brooks like this were flowing into larger watersheds, like Cameron Run, all over the district.

“We have to tell developers, ‘You cannot have a waiver of stormwater,” Dale said.

Hyland asked why these changes in small watersheds had gone unremarked for so long. He particularly directed his ire towards the Wilson Bridge. He said he had been told that whenever heavy rains fell, bridge workers had to abandon work near the water because of the heavy outflow from Cameron Run. Hyland said this should have set off alarms to the project managers to investigate and publicize Cameron Run’s flash flooding problem.

But a Fairfax county official disputes the magnitude of the problem. “Waivers during construction are granted very, very rarely,” said Bruce Nassimbeni, director of the Environmental Facilities Review Division of the Fairfax Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. On the specific issue of storm water waivers, Nassimbeni said “storm water issues are addressed as part of the plan approval process” before construction begins.

COUNCIL members described a situation in which the countless individual actions from development across the region plus the many personal experiences of increased stream flow during rainstorms would not attract the notice of the entire community until a major disaster, such as the one at Huntington, occurred.

Katherine Ward, president of the Wellington Civic Association, encouraged other associations to be proactive about discovering what waivers a developer might be requesting in their communities.

But these waivers are notoriously difficult to uncover, even after the fact, according to many council members. Dale said there is no notification that a waiver has been issued, and if a citizen’s association wants to know what waivers have been issued on construction in their community, they have to search each property individually.

Dale said the theory behind the quick approval of waivers is that the developers often request them in the midst of a project. With workers on the site, there is pressure on the county not to make them sit idle. “The reason they get approved quickly is the guy with the bulldozer’s there,” said Dale.

ONE PROJECT’S waiver to cut down three extra trees or fill in an extra thousand square-feet of wetlands may not have a drastic impact. “I’m not saying all these little waivers are catastrophic,” said Jim Davis, the Association’s chairman of the Environment and Recreation Committee, “but they do add up.”

“They pinch a little here and they pinch a little there,” said Sheldon Hoenig, the MVCCA’s Citizen of the Year.

Dale said the Planning and Zoning Committee is working on a resolution to request that the county Board of Supervisors make the waiver-granting process more transparent. “What we [plan to ask] for is that the zoning administration does not act on any request until at least two weeks after the Supervisor has been notified,” said Dale.

Both he and Hoenig pointed out that they realize zoning and environmental waivers are a necessity for any building project. “I’m not against giving them waivers. I’m against giving them in secret,” Hoenig said.

“It’s a recognized weak link in the whole zoning process,” said Dale.