MetroWest Point Man in Fight of His Life
Monday, September 12, 2005
Stan Settle Jr., the rainmaker for Pulte Homes in Virginia, took two yellow Post-its and stuck them on an aerial photograph spread across his desk.
The photo showed 56 vacant acres that the Michigan-based builder owns south of the Vienna Metro station and hopes to develop as a mini-city of apartment buildings, townhouses, shops and office blocks.
The Post-its blotted out 3.7 acres in the shape of a string bean that Metro owns between the station and a stretch of trees.
That land is a sticking point between Pulte, Fairfax County officials and powerful Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), whose concerns about the project's density led him to use his clout to propose legislation to block the sale of the Metro land.
Before Davis's action, Settle was riding high. Now he's just plain mad.
"Now what you've got is an ugly berm," Pulte's head of land acquisitions in Northern Virginia boomed in a Blue Ridge twang, describing how MetroWest would look without the sliver of Metro property.
If Pulte is blocked from developing that land, MetroWest still could be built. But it wouldn't be "smart growth," Settle said. Fewer commuters would take transit instead of cars or walk from the store to the dry cleaner to the coffee shop.
"Let's just go ahead and condemn it!" he joked.
Like any home builder in an affluent, gridlocked market of development-wary residents, Settle is used to hearing from prickly neighbors who would prefer almost anything to a production builder showing up next door. And that's what he's faced since 2002, when he paid $500,000 apiece for 69 single-family homes in Fairlee, a postwar enclave next to the last Virginia stop on Metro's Orange Line. When a developer proposes to replace a spread of small bungalows with 2,240 condos and townhouses in 12 buildings, 100,000 square feet of retail space and three times that amount for offices, neighborhood opposition is a given.
But Settle, a tough-talking college dropout from tiny Amissville, Va., who has spent his career moving up the Pulte ladder, said nothing prepared him for a congressman trying to unravel his project.
"I never thought we'd get where we are now," Settle said of Davis. "I've got a congressman involved in local land use. What's going to be next?"
Settle, 47, is in many ways a perfect point man to be paving the way, literally and figuratively, for his industry to enter a new era of urban-style development along a major transit line.
Such development is anathema to many people, however, and requires thinking outside the usual box of homes on suburban cul-de-sacs. Settle is not your typical developer.
He's rich and is building a house on 25 acres outside of Leesburg. But he prefers T-shirts to suits. He makes multimillion-dollar deals with folksy charm. He quit college to work as a road inspector for the Virginia Department of Transportation. He owns two Harleys and hunts turkey. He's a Republican who gave $1,000 to Davis's federal campaign fund in 2004, records show. And he says exactly what's on his mind.
"Stan does have a great sense of humor," said Fairfax Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes the Pulte property. "It breaks up a lot of tension. This project has gone through I don't know how many iterations. It's hard to believe we've lasted this long talking about Fairlee."
Settle said he has tried to apply the "first principle of home building" to MetroWest -- public outreach. "You make sure you take care of your neighborhoods."
Still, this project required more outreach than most, he said. He and his staff have been meeting with 64 homeowners associations north and south of Vienna Station. There were reams of engineering reports and environmental assessments and countless meetings with the county's Board of Supervisors, which supports the concept of transit-oriented development at MetroWest.
After several tense hearings, the efforts seemed to pay off in December, when the supervisors voted unanimously to revise the county's land-use plan to allow a dense project next to the station. Settle was elated.
But then came a community meeting in Oakton four months later, attended by 400 to 600 people, depending on who's counting. Most were there to oppose the density of MetroWest. Enter Davis, whose wife -- state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax) -- narrowly won her seat to represent the area. The congressman took to the podium and pledged to force Pulte to scale back the project.
Settle said the opposition represents a minority of residents. The opponents disagree. "The vast majority of surrounding neighborhoods would like to see a different vision for the use of this property," said Will Elliott, a founder of FairGrowth, a group pushing for fewer homes in MetroWest. "When Congressman Davis said what he said, there was great applause."
Settle said he cannot scale back the project because Pulte would lose money, as well as potential retailers who want a critical mass of pedestrians to make their businesses viable.
The project is awaiting various traffic and environmental studies before the Planning Commission and county board vote late this fall and in the winter. Davis spokesman Rob White said the congressman does not have a problem with Pulte but "with the process," which failed to take into account opposition from Vienna officials and the effect of so many cars on surrounding streets and on parking at the Metro station.
Settle said his goal is to make the community "better coming out than I did coming in."
He said he'll start by never writing a check to Davis's campaign again. "Very definitely not."