Town Votes to Retain Its Character

Town Votes to Retain Its Character

Incumbents highlight opposition to major redevelopment as key to victory.

It’s been 30 minutes since the local polls closed for the 2007 Vienna Town Council election and the halls of the local community center that played host to it are silent, save for the low hum of a silver vacuum cleaner over the thin carpeting.

As the early summer sun goes down on the first day of May, election officials work behind closed doors to determine a winner. A woman and her young son walk briskly through the community center, the toddler’s small hand clutching his mother’s fingers as the two pass the only other person left in the hallway.

The small, white-haired woman sitting quietly on the bench is Vienna resident and longtime local political figure and Town Council candidate Maud Robinson. She waits calmly, her dark-colored jacket folded neatly beside her, for the final results of her fourth election as a council member.

As a Vienna resident for more than 50 years and the wife of the late former mayor Charles Robinson, who served in Vienna since the 1960s, Robinson, now 80, remembers a much more active crowd awaiting election results.

"In the old days we used to all sit down out here and wait, and people would be peeking in the window of what is now the gym," Robinson said. "That first election [of her husband’s mayoral career] was the only one to ever get nervous for. It was right down to the wire."

AS A RESIDENT for a half century, Robinson has seen the changes come to Vienna and its surrounding areas, she said. She watched as the Metrorail stop opened just south of town, as Tysons Corner built itself from the ground up to its east, as the expressways and county highways were ever expanded.

But it has been the Town of Vienna that has been impervious to the kind of large mixed-use condominiums and multi-level office developments that has emerged as the standard throughout Northern Virginia during the last two decades. It has been Vienna’s "hometown character" that has endured over those years due in large part to a council that has worked to preserve it through strict zoning codes and a thorough and involved development approval process, Robinson said.

That desire to hold their ground against wholesale changes to the town would be later reconfirmed when she would later join her fellow council incumbents less than an hour later as the victors in the council election.

The three incumbents, Robinson, former Army infantry captain and Vienna native Dan Dellinger and Vienna veteran politician George Lovelace, emerged victorious over challengers Deborah Brehony and Susan Stich, to make it the 14th consecutive election in which incumbents retained their seats against challengers, according to Fairfax County voting records.

While Stich had campaigned to reexamine the possibility of the redevelopment of the downtown corridor, Brehony had called for its "revitalization" to increase commercial options in town. The two did not run on a single slate.

THE KEY TO the election was in the overwhelming opinion that Vienna should, for the most part, stay the course and resist the temptation for the major redevelopment projects to its downtown Maple Avenue corridor, according to Dellinger, who, with 1,655 votes, was the election’s biggest winner.

"People moved to Vienna for a reason … it is unique in the metropolitan area, and they don’t want to see that small town that they moved to destroyed," said Dellinger, who added that in his door-to-door campaigning this spring, he saw an overwhelming majority of people opposed to major redevelopment downtown.

Those people who have recently invested in the Town of Vienna have been interested in seeing the town remain as it was when they decided to move within its limits, said Robinson, in a phone interview after the election.

"In the last five years we’ve a tremendous influx of new young residents to Vienna and we are finding that they chose the town for a reason … and they made their voice heard," in the election, she said. "I think the election validates the incumbents’ calls to keep Vienna abreast with its services and quality of life, but in doing so, to not sacrifice its hometown character."

BUT THE COUNCIL, as it stands, may not be standing as firm as they might against redevelopment because of its failure to address changes and work to adapt the town to meet the economic realities of the region, said Brehony. A plan that addresses how to meet the need for increased economic "growth and prosperity" to the town should be in place to deal with what changes could occur on Maple Avenue and other parts of downtown, she added.

"In order to protect against growth you cannot just sit back and refuse to be proactive," Brehony. "I think we’re vulnerable to some of the very changes that they say they stand against."

The town’s comprehensive plans, drafted every five years by the council and planning commission, as well as zoning ordinances limiting building height and density have served and will continue to maintain the town’s character, said Lovelace.

"Anyone who wants to build in the Town of Vienna needs to go to those plans and our zoning codes and they must adhere to them," he said. "It’s not like we’re looking around and fishing for answers, we have that covered under our zoning and planning staff."

All three incumbents underlined that they were not against reviewing plans on a case-by-case basis to replace or maintain aging or deteriorating buildings downtown or allow for new businesses, if they met certain zoning requirements.

Stich could not be reached for comment.

IN THE END, the voters chose once again to reinstate the terms of their incumbent council members in large numbers and proceed on the path that Vienna has been going for the last 15 years.

It is a mandate from the population, who turned out in uncharacteristically high numbers for this election, to further their desire to stand firm against major commercial redevelopment, according to Lovelace.

"If you look at that vote, I think that it says the citizens spoke, and they are talking about retaining Vienna’s residential character," he said. "I think Vienna residents are very happy with where they live and I think they want to see their council work to maintain that image of the town."