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Citizens Discuss, Shape Merrifield’s Future

New residents acquainted with comprehensive plan.

When the process of amending the comprehensive plan for the Merrifield area began in mid-1990s, residents of the area agreed that it lacked an image. They also agreed that it could be more than an industrial space where it is typical to see backs of cars, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

"This is the only place where you could come from your class ‘A’ office, see a movie and rent a bulldozer," said Bob Mortensen, who chaired the 28-member Merrifield Plan Task Force. The group produced recommendations for the new comprehensive plan. "A little bit of landscaping here and there couldn’t help," said Mortensen.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors enacted the plan on June 11, 2001. It has since guided, and continues to guide, new development in the area, which includes major redevelopment projects around the Dunn Loring Metro Station and the Multiplex movie theater. The area around the theater will in the future serve as a town center, and development plans for the area are under review by the county.

Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) held a meeting on Tuesday night, April 24, to present latest plans for Merrifield to area residents. About 200 people attended the meeting at Luther Jackson Middle School, many of them new to the area since the 2001 adoption of the plan. "Obviously Merrifield is a very interesting place," said Smyth, recognizing the size of the audience.

Mortensen and other members of the task force reviewed the objectives and goals of the 2001 plan. "Predominantly, Merrifield wasn’t replanned," said Charlene Fuhrman-Schulz, of the county’s department of housing and community development. She said major changes in the plan centered on the metro station, the future town center and the corridor between them. She added that the connections should encourage people to decrease vehicle usage. "You can’t have just street connections, you need pedestrian connections plus something to get people from point A to point B," said Fuhrman-Schulz.

Since the plan’s adoption, new buildings have sprung up around the metro station, and others are under review. Fuhrman-Schulz explained that the plan calls for most of the new density to be built around the metro station.

PEOPLE IN THE AUDIENCE expressed concern that future development would not help solve already bad traffic woes for those whom work and live in Merrifield. Kris Abrahamson, of the county’s department of planning and zoning, said voluntary commitments from developers, better known as proffers, should help balance additional density. Traffic improvements are an example of proffers. She added that when the Board of Supervisors approve proffers they go into the land record, which stays with the property even if it changes ownership.

"How are those proffers measured and enforced? Are there any penalties," asked Merrifield resident Greg Mutersbaugh. Abrahamson said that not complying with the proffers is a criminal offense, and that there are stages of penalties.

"There is a risk of saturating the roads even more than they already are," said Mutersbaugh after the meeting. He said he liked the development plans, because they could enhance the area, but that the proffer system needs to be monitored and effectively enforced.

The residents also had questions for the Virginia Department of Transportation representative, Bud Siegel. Most pressing for the residents was the schedule for traffic improvements at the corner of Gallows Road and Lee Highway. Siegel said VDOT has started the process of acquiring right-of-way property, and is committed to advertise the project – construction of the remodeled intersection – by December 2010. He said some of the buildings in the vicinity of the intersection could be demolished as early as next spring.

One of the many problems VDOT is facing, according to Siegel, is that it has to relocate utility lines present at, or near, the intersection. Current efforts are an "initiation of what is a fairly significant utility relocation packet," said Siegel.

The remodeling of the intersection envisions three through lanes, two dedicated left-turn lanes and a dedicated right-turn lane on both of the streets. It also envisions 32-foot-wide medians, as pedestrian havens that encourage landscaping.

"How are people going to cross this street," said Fran Wallingford. Siegel said the traffic lights would be programmed to allow pedestrians the time to cross the intersection.

"THIS IS LAND USE 101 in terms of Merrifield," said Smyth. She said the process has been community driven from the beginning, since the task force first started considering the new comprehensive plan. She said the plan is in place to guide the development, and that the implementation of it, the new development, is in the hands of the community.

Merrifield could follow the example of how Arlington grew, generally seen as a well-planned build out, according to Ekrem Sarper, president of the Merrifield Citizens Association. "But only if you remain engaged," said Sarper, addressing the audience at the meeting.