When Jim and Virginia Frye bought their home in Chantilly's Brookfield Woods community nine years ago, never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that, someday, someone would want to put a 20-foot traffic signal in their front yard.
But since they live on the corner of Lees Corner and Poplar Tree roads — and a developer is building 49 new homes across the street from them — that's exactly what they're facing. And so is the couple directly across Lees Corner from them.
"The developer wants two, 10x20-foot easements to put in the traffic signal — complete with pedestrian pole, and two cement plates giving access to the poles for maintenance — in my front lawn," said Virginia Frye. "I don't understand how they can get away with that."
"AND SINCE there's a handicapped person on the street, it'll be an audible signal, sort of like a construction truck backing up — and they're not quiet," said her husband. "Twenty-four hours a day — 'beep, beep, beep,'" added neighbor George Neczyporuk.
For years and years, the land across the street from them was a horse farm with nothing but grass. Then last summer, they got a letter from Fairfax County. "It was advising us about a zoning change to [that] property from R-1 [one home per acre] to R-2 Cluster [two homes per acre clustered together]," said Jim Frye.
"I called the county and asked if anything was going to happen to my property and did I have to go to any zoning meetings," said Virginia. "And the woman I talked to said no, it was just standard policy to notify the community about the new development."
Then, in January, said Jim, "A packet of letters came from H. Mark Goetzman, the developer's attorney at Walsh, Colucci saying they wanted to buy our easement and put in a traffic signal. They offered us $8,524."
"I called the attorney and said, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" said Virginia. "'You're asking us to put a hood ornament on the front of our property.'" She demanded to speak to the developer of the new Poplar Tree Parc subdivision, and Jeff Vish from WCI (Poplar Tree Road LLC) contacted her.
Meanwhile, neighbors Susan and George Neczyporuk, also at the corner of Poplar Tree and Lees Corner, got the same letter. But since the developer "only" needed one easement from them, they were offered a settlement around $3,000.
Both signals would have arms reaching across the street. The Fryes' would direct east/west traffic on Poplar Tree Road; the Neczyporuks' would direct north/south Lees Corner traffic and northbound Autumn Glory Way in the new development.
"There's an easement for power lines and water between our sidewalk and Lees Corner," said George Neczyporuk. "But there's no easement where they want to put the traffic signal, and no easement for VDOT."
The same is true of the Fryes' property. But in order to put in the signal, VDOT would need easements. "We called our own lawyer and showed him the paperwork," said Virginia Frye. "And he told us we don't have to agree to the easement."
On April 7, Goetzman sent a letter to both couples stating that VDOT had approved the signal design and it met the requirements for signal visibility and public safety. He wrote that, if he didn't hear from the homeowners by April 21, he'd presume they were rejecting WCI's monetary offer. After that, he wrote, "Fairfax County and VDOT shall proceed in the manner they deem appropriate to obtain the necessary traffic signal easement."
"THEY'RE NOT being fair to us," said Virginia. "'Too bad, so sad, suck it up.'" Centre View's calls to Vish and Goetzman were not returned. But both couples considered Goetzman's words to be a threat and a strong-arm tactic to get their land.
"It was like we have no control," said Virginia. "Like they were saying, 'We're comin' in and you can't stop us,'" added her husband. "They're trying to intimidate us."
Then, said Neczyporuk, "On April 17, my wife called Debra Smith — a VDOT transportation engineer who approves these things — and she said she'd not approved anything, yet." Virginia Frye talked to Smith two days later and was told the same thing.
Indeed, last Tuesday, April 25, VDOT spokesman Ryan Hall said VDOT's looking at the signal design, but "hasn't approved anything yet, because they don't have the final design." He also said VDOT couldn't officially approve the signal design, anyway, "until the land is obtained."
Smith said poles are currently planned for all four corners, and the new development will have them on its side, too. However, she added, "I asked the engineer to provide me with an alternate plan [for the traffic signal] that wouldn't be in [the Fryes'] property]. But the developer wasn't interested in doing that." Nor does it have to be, said Hall, because the signal is written into the proffers.
Ironically, said Neczyporuk, "We've been asking for traffic calming and stop signs for years because of accidents on Poplar Tree and people driving too fast. But VDOT told us the traffic didn't warrant it."
Seeking help, Virginia Frye called Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), and they spoke on April 18. "He told me we needed the signal now for the safety of the public," she said. "But we didn't need it before they wanted to build these new homes."
Neczyporuk said WCI originally wanted to put the traffic signal on his side at the end of his property, at the corner of Poplar Tree and Lees Corner. "But VDOT said the wires would be down too low there, so they wanted to move it 40 feet from Poplar Tree, onto Lees Corner — moving the crosswalk beside my driveway and almost in the Fryes' driveway."
Doing so would place the signal between the sidewalk and street in a water and power easement. Said Neczyporuk: "The pole would be right in front of our picture window."
The Fryes say the signal lights from their pole would shine into their windows all night long. So, wondered Jim Frye, "Why not have one pole coming from the developer's property, angled into the center of the intersection, with a single light with signals on all four sides suspended from the pole?" But VDOT told him it "wasn't aesthetic."
Meanwhile, said Neczyporuk, "Their homes would be nicely landscaped with a berm so they wouldn't see [the traffic signal], but we'd look right at it. It's a big, industrial pole."
"WE SAVED, we bought a house and now somebody's telling us we can't have it," said Virginia. "They want us to have to take a loss to benefit the people across the street. They don't care about us."
To buy time, both couples sent letters to Goetzman, detailing the reasons why they don't accept his offer and saying they're willing to negotiate. For example, they wrote, they'd swap their homes, even Steven, for houses in the fancy, new development.
The Fryes told Goetzman that, "After conferring with multiple Realty companies, we were advised that our house will go down in value a minimum of 20 percent because of the [signal]. They also advise us that a lender may be unwilling to finance a buyer for the property because of the obstruction."
At the same time, saying that "no one buys damaged goods at a store," Melissa Golden — a friend of Virginia's and a Brookfield Elementary teacher who travels on Poplar Tree and Lees Corner every day — wrote to Supervisor Frey. "This is not New York City with blaring lights and urban development," she told him. "It is a simple, middle-class development [with] a true worth to this area."
"Not only does your home say something about your community, it says something about you, as well," continued Golden. "It is the place you hang your hat, the place you rest your feet, the place you watch your kids grow up. It contains memories that cannot be replaced by just moving into a new home in a new area to get away from the problems of an older community being swallowed up by new development. If this were your family or your parents, how would you feel?"
According to WCI's proffers, the developer can't get a permit to build the 25th new home unless it puts in the traffic signal. The document further states that, if unable to obtain the easements it needs to do so, the developer "shall request Fairfax County" to do it via eminent domain."
After learning about this case, Ted Troscianecki, president of the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA), planned to research the legalities. But preliminarily, he said, "In my mind, this crosses the line."
"The new homes are precipitating the need for the traffic signal, and it would negatively impact the fair market value of [the Fryes'] home," said Troscianecki. "Who's going to buy a house with a traffic signal in the yard?" But Supervisor Frey's response is, "Of course, someone will buy it; people will buy anything."
Meanwhile, At-Large Planning Commissioner Jim Hart referenced the Supreme Court case, Kelo vs. New London, in which the court ruled 5-4 that a development could be a public use. As a result, he said, VDOT could claim that eminent domain applies in the Fryes' case.
But, said Hart, they'd have to be fairly compensated for the value of what's taken from them, as well as the "damages to the residue" — meaning their property's diminished value, plus loss of use of their driveway because of a new, right-turn lane.
If the Fryes fight the taking, he said, "They'd have to litigate, and it would be up to the court to decide the value of what's taken." He said VDOT condemns property all the time. But these, particular proffers make Fairfax County the enforcer and, said Hart, "We don't generally like to condemn for developers."
But Supervisor Frey says the new signal isn't for such a narrow use and is really for traffic safety. He said residents in that neighborhood had previously "demanded" a traffic signal but, as a three-way intersection, that area didn't meet the criteria. As a four-way intersection because cross street, Autumn Glory, will now be a through street, it does.
ADDING THAT street to the mix, said Frey, will mean "additional turning movements in all directions now. And Autumn Glory connects a whole bunch of existing developments, so the traffic light will benefit the total community. We had a meeting with about 50 people from neighborhoods in that area, and they all wanted a signal. They said they couldn't get out of their neighborhoods onto Poplar Tree Road."
As for the proffers, he said they're "standard language" and are included "so the developer can't get off the hook for the road improvements he's agreed to make. We required the developer to put in the signal." However, he added, "I've never condemned property, yet," and he said he hopes not to do so in this case.
"I think we'll be able to move [the signal] out of their yard, into the right-of-way, closer to the corner," said Frey. "But I've not sat down with VDOT, the developer and engineer. The developer told us [it's] studying alternatives. We'll look into it and try to figure something out. We'll do the best we can."