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Learning from Past Mistakes

Second Braddock meeting focuses on what has not worked with past growth, development in Fairfax County.

When several Braddock District residents discussed why they moved to the area at a Nov. 1 meeting, the majority of them said they chose their neighborhoods based on the nearby schools and green spaces. Now, many of their priorities have shifted into how to cope with the area’s continuing growth and development.

Hosted by Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), the meeting was the second part of a three-part series of meetings, called Braddock Tomorrow, which focus on growth and development in the district.

Jean Packard, a former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the current chairman of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, began the meeting by talking about some development patterns that have worked, and others that have failed. When the attendees broke into groups to discuss the same topic, many found they had common goals and concerns for their communities. Transportation and overdevelopment were at the top of the list.

“If you don’t have jobs available where you put housing, you’re going to have more people on the road,” said Sam DiBartolo, a Burke resident.

IN ONE GROUP, frustration came from the lack of reliable transportation in the county. Between stop-and-go traffic and full parking lots at the train stations, many residents are finding transportation in the region to be a nightmare. Mary Cortina, a Burke resident who led the discussion in one of the breakout groups, said she moved to her neighborhood because of its proximity to the Virginia Railway Express.

When Packard moved here in the 1950s, the area was still considered “country.”

“Residential was the thinking at that time,” she said. “We didn’t want anything else; we just wanted a neighborhood.”

Packard, who chaired the Board of Supervisors in the mid-1970s, experienced a great deal of change in the county during her tenure. Zoning laws were vague and consisted of residential or commercial, she said, with nothing in between. And Boards of Supervisors before her allowed developers to take over most of the planning.

“It’s like when suddenly your teenager shoots up three inches when you haven’t been looking,” said Packard. “That’s what was happening to Fairfax County.”

The rapid growth is still happening. The problem with the zoning process today, she said, is that the time element is not specifically outlined. Once a re-zoning is approved, the builder can begin the project the next day. Something should be in place to say “this would be a good use for this land in 10 years, but not until then,” she said.

“If they’re going to re-zone, they’re going to build it,” said Thomas Fleury, senior vice president of Van Metre Companies and the other panelist at the meeting. “People don’t [go through the rezoning process] for fun.”

Many community members at the meeting agreed. The growth is happening faster than the roads and public transportation can handle, and the General Assembly in Richmond wants to look the other way, said Packard.

Northern Virginians love their cars, said Mary Cortina, a Burke resident and one of the group discussion leaders at the meeting. Some say residents don’t have a choice.

“The public transportation doesn’t serve us,” said Keith Young, a Braddock District resident. “The whole transportation system in Northern Virginia works to get people into D.C., but the jobs are moving out here.”

The goal of the meeting series is to focus on the issue of growth and development, said Bulova, meaning that much of the “visioning exercise” will need to address transportation issues. Since the window of opportunity to make changes to the county’s Comprehensive Plan won’t open up again for another four years, the community has that time to make some serious plans for the future, said Bulova.

Fleury said the four-year time out is a “tremendous opportunity.”

“What you’re looking at [with this visioning exercise], in my opinion, is redevelopment,” said Fleury. “When doing this visioning, put yourself on the offense rather than the defense.”

People have, and always will, want the same benefits out of their neighborhoods, said Fleury. It’s the same today as it was in the 1940s or 1950s, he said. People want to be in a great setting, live as close to work as possible and want amenities within a reasonable distance. Based on the most popular discussion topics in the breakout groups at the meeting, people want to see a change in the way development is handled in Fairfax County.

“We know that the only thing you can be sure of in life is that things will change,” said Bulova. “We can assume things will continue to change and grow as our neighborhoods age.”

The final meeting of the series is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 8, with a focus on development patterns that people like. Community members who have attended at least two of the three meeting will have the opportunity to vote on a community vision for the Braddock District’s future growth.