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'Smart Growth' Gains Traction in Fairfax

Some Fear Plan for High-Density Areas Will Uproot County's Suburban Qualities

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page C08

Fairfax County is the most prosperous and populous suburb of the nation's capital, and for decades, Washington area workers have sought domestic serenity in its verdant cul-de-sacs.

But as neighbors near Vienna are discovering, behind such placid appearances lies the potential for a far more urban future.

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The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last week approved replacing a neighborhood of 61 single-family homes near the Vienna Metro station with what amounts to a small city: two office mid-rises and nine apartment buildings of eight stories or more, as well as some shops.

More such controversial transitions are coming as elected county leaders embrace "smart growth," edit land plans and seek to avert sprawl by focusing dense new development in places where they say it makes sense.

"I don't think the average citizen has a clue about what's happening. People moved to Fairfax County with the idea that it was going to be suburban," said William S. Elliott, one of the leaders of a civic group that opposed the Fairlee project near Vienna as too dense. "This project was just the tip of the iceberg."

A closer look at county land plans undertaken in recent years shows that the areas around at least six other planned or existing Metro stops in the county have been changed to allow as much as four times the amount of building that currently exists.

Tyson's Corner, which planners hope to transform into "downtown Fairfax," as well as older commercial areas such as central Springfield and the Richmond Highway corridor, where planners hope to attract investors, have been adjusted in recent years to permit more development.

Planners and elected leaders argue that denser development will reduce driving distances, improve traffic flow, cut pollution and control sprawl. Their approach has won backing from such environmental groups as the Sierra Club and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

But the transformation of the region's largest suburb promises to roil homeowner politics.

Elliott and others claim that the county has espoused "ultra-high density" in places where there is no constituency for it. And while agreeing with smart growth in principle, they say that the county is already choking on traffic and pollution and that leaders should be more careful about approving more building.

"They're trying to urbanize the county," said Mark Tipton, another Fairlee opponent, who like others argues that the move should be debated. "But I don't think urbanization was a part of anyone's platform in the election."

Backers of the move toward some urban density, however, dismiss the idea that all 400 square miles of Fairfax are becoming citylike. Under the county's land plan, most of Fairfax will continue with suburban levels of building.

"Fairfax County is still going to have lots of low-density areas," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), who as the representative for the Fairlee area played a key role in approving the project last week. But "we have to understand that nothing is going to stay the same forever."

Indeed, though the county is already home to more than 1 million residents, many more are expected.

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