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Votes

Rocky Gorge Voted Down

Mayor casts tie-breaking vote on controversial land-use proposal.

A land-use proposal that Mayor Robert Lederer called “a defining moment” for the future of the city of Fairfax attracted nearly 100 members of the community to the meeting where its application was heard. At least 30 of them were still there at 1 a.m. to hear the final vote in which Lederer voted to break a 3-3 council tie, thereby denying the proposal.

More than 30 people spoke out during the public hearing at the Tuesday, Sept. 12, City Council meeting; a sizable turnout since many public hearings draw in about five people on a good night.

The meeting began with some tension, since Councilmembers Joan Cross, Jeff Greenfield, Gary Rasmussen and Patrice Winter prepared remarks calling Lederer out on comments he made in an Aug. 31 Connection article about the land-use application in question, known as Rocky Gorge. Each of the four members prepared statements, striking down ideas that any of them exchanged support for the project for political endorsements during last May's election. The four members were endorsed by a Mosby Woods Political Action Committee (PAC) that supported the Rocky Gorge project, but not by the developers themselves, and in no way exchanged that political support for any favorable consideration of Rocky Gorge, said Rasmussen.

“You and anyone else in this city are free to disagree with me on any city issue … you are not free, however, to imply that my position on [this] issue was anything other than my honest judgment about what is best for the whole city,” said Rasmussen.

“I have always disclosed in any application that comes before us whether I have received any support and will continue to do so,” said Greenfield. "The endorsement from the Mosby Woods PAC was not sought, nor wanted.”

"Support from this group of voters [the PAC], who have every right to vote for those candidates who share their views on issues, was brought to my attention only days before the recent election,” said Cross. "You [Lederer] have questioned our honesty, integrity and our motives: you are wrong.”

LEDERER REBUTTED by standing by his initial questions as to why anyone on the City Council would support the Rocky Gorge application, and by stating he was comfortable with the correction that was made to the initial article. Lederer said he would not allow people to use the issue of his printed comments as a diversion to what he called one of the most important land-use issues that he’s seen in the 20 years he’s served in public office. Councilmember Robert Silverthorne agreed that the issue should be "looked at on its merits," based on the interests of the overall city.

"The issue tonight, before us, is not about Rob Lederer," said Silverthorne. "The fact is this is a land-use issue, plain and simple."

Once the meeting got underway, the city's staff, Rocky Gorge applicants, City Council and the community all got a chance to speak about the application to develop the 123 age-restricted condominiums on the Stafford property, located on the north side of Route 50, between Eaton Place and the Sunoco Station.

Elizabeth Baker represented the developers, KMRG at Fairfax City, LLC, known as Rocky Gorge in this application, and answered many of council’s questions after Michelle Coleman, zoning administrator for Community Development and Planning, presented slides about the project’s details.

City staff recommended that council approve the previously amended proffers for a family entertainment center, with a special-use permit allowing the construction of the 55 and older age-restricted residential condominium units in the Highway Corridor Overlay District. Councilmembers spent about an hour discussing the issue before opening up the public hearing, raising questions about traffic, parking, the quality of construction, the validity of the age-restrictions, the slowing condominium market, the possibility of developers trying to switch the condos to apartments, the controversial property itself and whether the project would fit in with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

"It is the intention of the developer to develop them as condominiums," said Baker. "Once they're condos, they're condos."

BAKER DEFENDED many of the details in the application, including the use of a lightweight concrete material as a "soundly" building option. She also defended the need for senior-friendly housing in the area, and the heights and setbacks of the buildings.

Since the Planning Commission previously denied the project, citing, among other things, a concern for traffic and adequate parking, some councilmembers tried to gauge whether the commission’s initial concerns had been addressed and corrected by the developers.

“Right now, we’re slammed in the city on the weekends, with any kind of traffic,” said Councilmember Gail Lyon. “I think it’s going to be tough for that neighborhood to get in and out; it’s tough as it is right now.”

Baker said the reduction in parking spaces on site, from 2.2 per unit to 2.0 per unit, was merely a cost factor. She referenced studies that she said conservatively indicated that 20 cars per day would be added in morning trips, and about 30 cars per day would be added in evening trips.

“I don’t know who dreamed up those numbers,” said Gary Perryman, president of the Mosby Woods Civic Association.

Baker said those numbers might fluctuate, adding anywhere from 171 to 428 extra daily trips through the area. Lyon also questioned the age restrictions, along with Councilmember Scott Silverthorne, Winter and Greenfield. The councilmembers raised questions about whether the age restrictions would really prevent younger folks from living in the condominiums, since living arrangements have evolved from what they were in previous generations.

“I don’t think there’s any guarantee that people won’t have children in these units … it’s not likely and I recognize that, but [it's] possible,” said Silverthorne.

A FEW MEMBERS of the community mentioned different circumstances for why the age restriction would not necessarily mean less cars. Perryman, 53, said his children live at home because of how expensive the market has gotten. Susan Sproull, also in her 50s, lives in the neighborhood and has school-aged children. She asked whether council had considered the impact new residential units would have the city’s schools, since it would be likely that 55-year-old residents would have school-aged children.

About 30 people took advantage of the public hearing on the issue, with an unofficial tally of 23 opposed to the development and eight in favor of it. Those in favor made points about the benefit of eight acres on the property, which is on a floodplain and essentially undevelopable, that the developers would give back to the city as open space. Purchasing this land would cost millions, many said, so getting it for free was too good a deal to pass up.

Ann Laporte, a member on the Mosby Woods board of directors, supported the issue but also told council she didn’t think they were prepared to make a decision that night. Greenfield agreed. He made a motion to defer the application hearing until the next City Council meeting on Sept. 26, so council could have more time, but nobody seconded it. He said he had issues and concerns with the application as it stood, and based on the inability to move it to a later council meeting, said he would have to vote no.

And that’s what he did, making the vote a tie. Councilmembers Winter, Cross and Rasmussen, all of whom previously showed support for the project both earlier in the evening and in a July 25 work session meeting, voted in favor of Rocky Gorge. Silverthorne, Lyon and Greenfield voted no, and Lederer broke the tie by voting against the application.

The council adjourned around 1 a.m., after nearly six hours discussing the proposal and listening to community feedback. The majority of the members who stayed late to hear the vote were overjoyed, filling into the hallway with applause and smiles.

Spencer Cake, the open space advocate in Mosby Woods and the leader of the Mosby Woods Improving Our Quality of Life Coalition, presented petition with more than 1,100 signatures earlier in the meeting opposing the project. He spent months knocking on doors to get the word out about the issue he opposed. He said he had hoped the City Council would acknowledge the community opposition, as they did when they denied a hotel development backing up to the Country Club Hills neighborhood a few years ago. Members from that community mobilized and spoke out, ultimately getting their way. While Cake wants the city to purchase the land for open space, something they seem reluctant to do because of cost issues, he was happy with the way things turned out with the Rocky Gorge application.