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Ready for Rail, Reluctant on Development?

Residents get glimpse of what rail development will look like assuming barriers are overcome.

No matter how often she hears it, Reston resident Mary Buff isn’t convinced.

For Buff, it seems far fetched that there will be less congestion and traffic in Reston when plans go through to bring two proposed Metro stations to intersections along the Dulles Toll Road at Wiehle Avenue and Reston Parkway. “The idea we’re going to have less congestion can’t happen,” she said despite presentations to the contrary at a forum last Wednesday, May 3, where several county officials and rail representatives updated residents on the latest transportation plans for Reston.

Most distressing for Buff and several other residents, though, are plans to build high-density, mixed-use development near the two planned stations.

“It’s nice to have rail here to go downtown, but I don’t know if what we’re giving up is worth what we’re getting,” said Buff. “We came here for the trees, the paths and the lakes — not for highrises and concrete. They are going to make New York out of [Reston] and New York belongs in New York not in Reston,” she said.

AS MANY OTHER residents, like Marion Stillson, feel planned mix-use development near the stations is much more attractive than a sea of parking. “The alternative is just acres of parking lots, and nobody wants that,” said Stillson after the meeting, which was emceed by Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill). The briefing attracted a crowd of about 110 people who expected it to concentrate on efforts to bring rail to Reston but quickly assumed a development theme.

Residents first heard from Sam Carnaggio, the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project director, who provided a brief update on Phase I of the project, which will bring rail from Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue. Much of the project, he said, has been consumed by work to satisfy the Federal Transit Authority and secure $900 million in federal funding. He expects the project will have a final funding agreement with the FTA by early 2007. Whether or not that agreement can afford an underground tunnel through 4.3 miles of Tysons Corner, as opposed to an aerial rail line, is still under examination. Otherwise the project is on track, said Carnaggio. “No pun intended.”

YET MUCH OF the transportation update went by the wayside Wednesday as featured speakers continued to return to prospects for residential development around the proposed station at Wiehle Avenue, particularly the nine-acre county-owned park-and-ride lot adjacent to the planned station.

Patricia Nicoson, a longtime Reston resident and president of the non-profit Dulles Corridor Rail Association, extolled the merits of transit-oriented development (TOD) for the site, which she said is vital to the success of either Metro stations in Reston. She said TOD, which is pedestrian oriented and mix use, will reduce highway needs, congestion and is in line with the now popular smart-growth movement. “It is possible to reduce traffic and congestion and get people out of their cars with transit-oriented development,” said Nicoson.

But TOD must include residential density, something currently forbidden by little known, 40-year-old private covenants.

The covenants, called Reston Center for Industry and Government (RCIG), which date back to 1965, restrict residential construction at the area around the proposed Wiehle rail station.

“You’ve heard about the covenants and that may be stifling some of the market-driven development because you do need more residential development,” said Richard Stevens, Dulles Rail Project coordinator with the county’s Department of Transportation.

A petition to overturn the covenants has long been underway, but it requires owners of 90 percent of the land to sign on. The petition has reached 73 percent, according to Reston Association officials.

“We still have eight critical landowners who are not convinced this would be good for the community,” said Nicosan, regarding the petition to overturn the covenants.

IF THE COVENANTS are overturned, the developer chosen by the county will be able to build residential units on the park-and-ride lot currently at the site. If the covenants remain, many suspect residential development will be limited to property on the corner of Wiehle Avenue and Sunset Hills Road owned by Reston resident Chuck Veatch, according to Joe Ritchey of commercial real estate firm Prospective Inc. Current plans include at least 400 residential units, which the covenants would not allow at the county-owned site.

Not only do the covenants restrict residential units, but they also prohibit hotel development, according to Fred Selden, Director of Comprehensive Planning, Fairfax County. “We’re trying to remove those covenants to fulfill the comprehensive plan,” said Selden.

He added that Reston will be a critical jurisdiction in the future of Fairfax County. “You can see how Reston is becoming far more centrally located.”

SOME RESIDENTS remain leery about how the transit development will affect their neighborhoods. Dick Rogers, a Reston resident who lives less than a minute from the proposed Wiehle station, complained that the forum lacked a community voice. “It was unclear who was speaking for the community,” said Rogers. He also called the claim that congestion will be reduced even as more density is added, as “developer pie-in-the-sky talk.”

Stillson, who serves on the board of the Reston Citizens Association, said many of the residents’ concerns could be allayed if Reston were a town. “I would be much more confident [transit development] would go in the direction Reston people wanted if we had a town governing the process,” said Stillson.