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For flood-prone Fairfax neighborhood, levee bond’s win is ‘a lifesaver’

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For the flood-prone, working-class neighborhood of Huntington, in eastern Fairfax County, Tuesday’s election delivered an especially important win: Voters overwhelmingly approved a $30 million bond measure to pay for a levee that many consider the neighborhood’s last hope.

Although bond referendums generally pass by big margins in Fairfax, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, county officials and Huntington residents were dubious that taxpayers would support an expensive project to protect fewer than 200 homes. Had they not, the only option left might have been to tear down the houses, replace them with a park and allow redevelopment nearby.

But more than three-quarters of Fairfax voters who went to the polls Tuesday approved the measure. More people said yes to the levee than to any of the county ballot’s three other bond referendums, which total $155 million and will pay for parks, libraries and public safety improvements.

For residents who have put up with three devastating floods in the past decade — including one in which a few people were nearly swept away by the water — the win came as a tremendous relief.

“I’m so thankful that people wanted to help us,” said Martha Aramayo, a retired federal worker and Bolivian immigrant who has lived on one of the hardest hit streets, Arlington Terrace, since 1970. “I was watching the news and just praying that this would save us.”

Home mostly to young and blue-collar families and retirees, Huntington’s small brick duplexes were built in the 1940s and ’50s, and they make up one of the county’s last affordable enclaves.

Those in favor of the levee bond said the neighborhood should not have to bear the entire cost of a problem that studies have tied to the construction of the Capital Beltway. They also say that the flooding has grown much worse since many residents moved to Huntington and that county officials promised to preserve the neighborhood when a Metro stop was built there in the 1970s.

Over the years, damage caused by the flooding of Cameron Run, just a few blocks from the neighborhood, has cost residents hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. In some cases, floodwaters filled basements to their ceilings.

A number of studies have sought a solution. The most recent determined that a levee, though expensive, would be the cheapest. But until Tuesday, attempts to fund a levee had failed.

“I’m ecstatic that people across the county were willing to help these people,” said county supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), whose district includes Huntington. “It’s been a long battle, and this is truly going to be a lifesaver.”

Hyland suggested that Hurricane Sandy’s devastation in New Jersey and New York might have made voters more sympathetic. Huntington residents were evacuated because of the storm, but their homes were not damaged by flooding.

A county spokeswoman, Merni Fitzgerald, said the next steps include design work and bidding the contract to build the levee, an earthen berm that will stand 11 feet high and stretch about a half-mile. She said the process could be long but would not provide a timeline.

“We’ve already started having the conversations to move this forward,” she said.

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