Balancing Environment and Economics in Mount Vernon

Balancing Environment and Economics in Mount Vernon

Townhouse project seeks plan amendment for eight-acre site on Richmond Highway.

County officials and local residents tour the site at 8800 Richmond Highway on Wednesday, Aug. 1.

County officials and local residents tour the site at 8800 Richmond Highway on Wednesday, Aug. 1. Photo by Jerry Fill.


Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck and Mary Cortina, at-large planning commissioner, at the proposed townhouse project site.

Land use issues commonly present a conflict between different points of view of what one party may desire versus what another party believes ought to take place. The outcome of the debate does not always turn out the way one side or another believes it should. What are the environmental factors versus the economic factors that drive the debate?

The stakes are frequently very high if you ask Pete Sitnik, one of the owners of the site for a proposed 8800 Richmond Highway project encompassing approximately eight acres on the western side of Richmond Highway. Sitnik says, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve and sell the property.”

The 8800 Richmond Highway project has different sides to the debate but it all boils down to this: Do the environmental factors in the past and identified in the most recent field inspection make building a townhouse development impractical?

The preliminary view of county officials is that extensive reengineering will be required beyond the original boundaries to stabilize an area where the townhouse foundations must be protected. In addition it appears the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will require detailed analysis and planning to allow for Route 1 widening, while still protecting the integrity of the stream flow, land, and floodplain in the vicinity of the Dogue Creek bridge.

The Planning Commission staff will continue to analyse community comments until Sept. 13 before submitting a new report with recommendations on whether to approve an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan in the eight-acre resource protection area. Next steps are to continue to assess comments and prepare an updated Planning Commission staff report for the commission to assess on Sept, 23, and for the staff and commission to forward an advisory report to the Board of Supervisors who need to decide on what to do with this application for an Amendment to the Comprehensive Plan on Sept. 25. The VDOT Dogue Creek and Route 1 bridge analysis report would likely have to be submitted in a timely way also.

Speaking about the Dogue Creek watershed, Elizabeth Martin, Friends of Little Hunting Creek, urged the county to delay any decision on the application in order to conduct additional analysis of the environmental impact of development as proposed by the Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA). The VDOT analysis is necessary to plan for the alignment of Dogue Creek and implementing and functioning of the Route 1 bridge over Dogue Creek to mitigate against the continual erosion of the streambank and roadbed.

In her testimony before the commission, Martin said, “The true value of the 8800 Richmond Highway property is as public access to Dogue Creek and its wetlands north and south of the highway, areas that are virtually inaccessible now. Pole Road Park really should be a water trail and birding site, and 8800 would be a perfect public access point. …. the use of the land as a wildlife habitat would do far more to revitalize the corridor than yet another townhome development.” She also said that Environmental Quality Corridor (EQC) disturbances should only be approved that accomplish the following five purposes: conservation of open space; protection of wildlife habitat and protection of biodiversity of species; protection of riparian corridors; protection of water quality; and aesthetic values.”

John Thillman, environmental consultant to developer Landmark Atlantic, said, “This site’s environmental elements need both restoration and protection and not some time in the future but now. ... The site functions as a non-point source of water pollution into the Dogue Creek and in no way functions as a EQC or resource protection area or a ‘functioning’ flood plain. … It’s a pollution source and not an EQC or RPA (resource protection area). The opponents of the Comp Plan Amendment make a no development argument and not an environmental restoration argument.”

Voicing concern, Marianne Gardner, director of the Fairfax County Planning Division, said, “The Amendment creates conflicts with established Comprehensive Plan policy and would create adverse precedent relating to new residential development within floodplains. Adequately addressing the concerns regarding the stability of the Dogue Creek channel, erosion, and VDOT’s Richmond Hwy project requires further coordination and discussion. Staff does not support this Amendment.”

Judy Harbeck, co-chair, Mount Vernon Council of Citizens' Associations (MVCCA), said, “This is not a perfect solution ... but there are no losers in this proposal."

Karen Pohorylo, Engleside Civic Association, said, “The importance of this CPA is that we are urging that passage will allow some form of a residential option to this suburban neighborhood area surrounded by a CBC (Woodlawn Community Business Center). The passage of a CPA will allow the private sector to clean up this property through redevelopment. There is nothing illegal about the existing conditions, it’s just undesirable from an environmental, aesthetic, and community building standpoint. So you create a community vision and incentives for the private sector to find solutions.”

A number of individuals and organizations are also adamant that building the townhouse development is not only a good idea, but long overdue, and believe that the supervisors should support the CPA to allow, as an option, residential development. The thinking of the developers and builders is that, as a first step, a CPA will bring value to the region, value to the Route 1 corridor, and advances the potential that the townhouse development and surrounding area will be sustained and protected. The advocates for the development argue that the threat of erosion or flooding will be overcome by the reengineering, such as drainage systems installed, and dumping fill dirt in the immediate vicinity to the degree needed to stop erosion of the surrounding area where the townhouse development will take place. According to the developer proposal, the action to create the townhouses will impact approximately three acres; five other acres will be left undeveloped and those acres will be deeded to the Fairfax County Park Authority for its stewardship. One of the additional factors in deciding whether or not to move ahead is the willingness of the developer to spend the money to create a protected resource area.

In opposition, former Mount Vernon District Tree Commissioner Eleanor Quigley said, “By allowing up to 13 unlicensed businesses to operate for years, the owners ... created a junkyard that lowered property values up and down the highway. Now they are seeking special privileges to add 5 feet of fill dirt in the floodplain and build housing in the former floodplain. The Planning Commission should not consider special privileges that do not remedy and likely further damage this important watershed.”