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Goodbye John Byers

For two decades, Mount Vernon’s former planning commissioner helped shape the district.

Earl Flanagan, Mount Vernon’s new Planning Commissioner, has a message for anyone who’s stopped at Home Depot to look at new kitchen counters, bought a balloon bouquet at the American Balloon Company, a burrito at Moe’s or anything else at one of the establishments in Richmond Highway’s new flagship shopping center.

Mount Vernon Plaza “didn’t happen by accident.”

On Friday night, residents of Mount Vernon had a chance to say goodbye to the man that many, including Flanagan, credit with making redevelopment along the highway happen. John Byers served as Mount Vernon’s Planning Commissioner for 21 years. In that time, new homes and businesses have sprung up on Richmond Highway and in South County. An area that was once neglected is now one of the focal points of growth in Fairfax County.

At Friday’s reception at the Mount Vernon Inn, organized by Supervisor Gerry Hyland, Planning Commission Chairman Peter Murphy said that Byers presided over a fundamental shift in the direction of development in the county. Instead of moving west, developers are looking to the southeast in areas like Laurel Hill, Lorton and Huntington.

When the county’s commissioners were deadlocked over an ambitious proposal to convert Lorton’s abandoned prison into a carefully planned community of high-end businesses and homes, Byers pushed through a compromise plan that broke the tie in favor of the Lorton Town Center. “It transformed that part of the county,” Murphy said.

Gerry Hyland said home values in the Town Center have risen faster than in any other part of the district and rival real estate prices anywhere in Fairfax. He credited Byers for helping to craft “a major shift” in the comprehensive plan for Richmond Highway. The document that directs the county’s growth calls for “nodes” of offices and retail establishments along Richmond Highway with new residential development in-between.

“The transformation of Richmond Highway is largely possible because of John Byers’ efforts,” Hyland said.

Flanagan, who Hyland has appointed to replace Byers, also worked on that plan. He said envisioning a new reality is one thing, making it happen, and preventing any back-sliding, is another. Byers was “able to hang onto concepts and not allow them to be corrupted,” Flanagan said. “He could dig in his heels.”

“YOUR FOOTPRINTS, handprints and heartprints are all over the Mount Vernon District,” Hyland told Byers, whose long service to the Mount Vernon District has been intertwined with Hyland’s. The supervisor said that in the 20 years the two men worked together, he voted against Byers’ recommendations only five times.

Hyland told him, “You had the uncanny ability to have people willing to work with you.” He said this ability has a simple source: integrity. “You told them exactly how you felt… and that’s remarkable in dealing with people.”

Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman recalled attending a formal military function where he encountered Byers in his dress blues. Medals and ribbons covered one breast of the uniform and they were beginning to trickle down the other side as well. “You’re always a warrior for the highway,” Kauffman told him, “doing the right thing for both sides of the highway.”

During his time as commissioner, Byers avoided the press and almost always declined requests to be quoted. Given the opportunity to speak at his reception, he turned to the words of others. “Honest friends are few,” he said, quoting the poet Robert Service. But Byers said that in his career as planning commissioner, he was the exception.

Referring specifically to his relationship with Hyland, Byers quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A friend is someone I can talk to sincerely, that I can think out loud to without taking umbrage.” He said he and Hyland could be honest when the other person was wrong.

Byers said he is most proud of the words he put in the county’s comprehensive plan that ban sewer lines from private land around Mason Neck State Park. About 1/3 of the land in Mason Neck is privately owned, Byers explained, but the language barring sewers means that like the parkland it borders, it will never be developed.

But Byers had a different forecast for development in the rest of the county. “I think the growth is going to continue,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is find a way to build up instead of out.” He said the county must follow its new plan for “transit-oriented” development, which clusters high-density housing around public transit stops like Metro and VRE stations.

MANY WHO SPOKE about Byers also mentioned his wife Peggy. “She supported him in his military career during peace and war,” said Murphy, “and she supported him in his Planning Commission duties – during peace and war.”

Former Supervisor T. Ferrell Egge first appointed Byers to the commission. “Little did you know you’d be here 20 years later,” he said to Byers, before shifting his attention.

“Peg,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Byers calculated Peggy spent 2,600 nights alone while he was planning commissioner, a time equivalent to seven years. Some guests were skeptical this trend would end. “Retirement has a different meaning for John than it does for everyone else,” said Irma Clifton, the president of the Lorton Heritage Society, “It’s not retirement for him it’s just transition.”

Byers would admit only to having “irons in the fire right now.” But as she’s always been, Peggy Byers is philosophical. “I think that he has enjoyed himself, and that’s the important thing,” she said.