Everyone who has been deeply involved in the county’s planning process over the past 20 years has their own anecdote of a time when Carrie Johnson saved the day.
FOR COUNTY Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman that moment came during the negotiations over the development of what became Pentagon Row.
Discussions between developers, county staff and nearby residents had ground to a halt; the developers wanted to build massive condo and retail projects, while many residents advocated for smaller stores and less intrusion on the surrounding communities.
In an effort to resolve the impasse, Johnson was appointed to chair the task force that would work with both sides. Thanks to Johnson’s leadership, Zimmerman said, a compromise was forged, and a new model of urban development created.
"Whenever there’s an issue that’s particularly thorny … people say ‘let’s get Carrie," Zimmerman said.
Last week the County Board honored Johnson for her 19 years of service on the Planning Commission, from which she retired in December. Johnson decided it was time for "a new generation of leadership" on the Planning Commission, on which she served as chairman in 1991 and 2001.
Johnson has been instrumental in shaping the county’s "smart growth" vision over the past two decades, and has been at the forefront of many of the county’s most ambitious projects.
Besides working tirelessly to establish a consensus on Pentagon Row, Johnson has helped spearhead the county’s efforts on Chesapeake Bay preservation, the Open Space Master Plan, Four Mile Run restoration and the new North Tract athletic and aquatic complex.
COUNTY BOARD members thanked Johnson for her "selfless" civic activism and illustrious tenure on the Planning Commission.
"In many ways you touched all aspects of Arlington," Board member Barbara Favola said. "Our government was stronger and more effective because you were a big part of it."
Others praised Johnson for her ability to foster a climate of understanding between parties and to establish a consensus where many thought no common ground existed.
She is able "to walk into a room full of frustrated individuals with divergent views… and bring them closer to [agreement] than anyone thought possible," County Board member Jay Fisette said.
Johnson served as a mentor and teacher to fellow members of the Planning Commission. County Board member Paul Ferguson referred to her as "the Michael Jordan" of Arlington’s development process, reminding Johnson that the basketball icon also came out of retirement on two occasions.
JOHNSON SAID she is proud to have had the opportunity to help sculpt the future of Arlington and influence the course of its development.
"The Planning Commission is not just a forum for your personal quirks and favors, but an opportunity to help lead the community toward decisions that benefit everyone," she said.
What makes Arlington such a special community to Johnson is its inclusive planning process and the county’s openness to ideas from the public. This is commonly referred to as "the Arlington Way."
"The Arlington Way is not just another process but an ethic of the community that’s central to a lot of what we do," Johnson said. "When you go to other places in the country, you realize how fortunate we are."
A Milwaukee native, Johnson first moved to Arlington in 1979 and was appointed to the Planning Commission in 1986. During the 1960s she served as a legislative assistant in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
In the 1970s Johnson worked as an editorial board writer for The Washington Post, and has continued to pursue a freelance writing career since.
When not trying to solve the county’s development conundrums, Johnson has been writing a variety of research papers on industrial history in Montana. She recently bought a house in Butte, in the southwest part of the state, and plans to spend the upcoming summer in her new abode.
Johnson will continue to be involved in Arlington affairs, as she is the vice chair of the design advisory committee on the county’s North Tract project — which will bring four soccer fields and an aquatic and fitness complex to an industrial strip of land near the Potomac River. She will also have a say in the upcoming planning for the restoration of Four Mile Run near Shirlington.
In addition to these undertakings, the Ashton Heights resident is setting aside some time to devote to a development project a bit closer to home: "The first beneficiary of my free time will be my garden," she said.