Area Developers Draft a Cheering Section

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

They look like citizens. They sound like citizens. And now they are starting to act like citizens.

They are showing up at public hearings wearing T-shirts proclaiming that they are "Citizens for Better Life" and taking sides in the hottest debate in Fairfax County: growth and what it should look like.

But Citizens for Better Life is not an ordinary citizens group. Instead of coming from the community where the projects would be built, Citizens and other groups like it are organized by the builders themselves.

The counteroffensive, led by the architect of a proposed development off the Dulles Toll Road in Vienna and Northern Virginia's leading building trade organization, takes a page from the neighbors it is up against in the battle over dense growth in Fairfax.

"A lot of people are telling me I've got to be insane to get involved in this," acknowledged Christian J. Lessard, the architect behind Citizens for Better Life.

Lessard's Vienna-based firm, the Lessard Group, is designing the vast Parkview community, a proposal for nearly 2,000 homes that developers are seeking to build off the toll road in Vienna, as well as the controversial MetroWest development near the Vienna Metro station.

"I've been seeing a trend lately," Lessard said. "People are saying they want to stop job growth in Fairfax County. That's just irresponsible."

So Lessard formed Citizens, which so far is small but vocal. The people who showed up at the public hearing wearing the Citizens T-shirts were Lessard's daughter and sister.

The dueling citizens groups highlight the increasingly emotional debate about what Fairfax is going to look like in the near future. People who moved into single-family homes fear urbanization as the Board of Supervisors steers the county toward higher-density growth near Metro stations. Builders say such growth is the only responsible way to accommodate all the people wanting to live in Fairfax as the job market booms.

With the organizational success of homeowners groups as their guide, the developers are going around the county advocating the need for new housing.

Suddenly the list of speakers at land-use hearings is stacked not just with people who oppose a project but also with people who favor it. Often those proponents do not live nearby and would not be directly affected by traffic or an increase in school-age children.

Lessard's group, for example, was incorporated as a nonprofit this fall to defend Parkview at public hearings against increasingly organized neighbors concerned about traffic and crowding. Like any advocacy group, Citizens has a mailing list, a Web site seeking donations and a stated mission: to improve the Washington region's quality of life by meeting its continued demand for housing. Lessard's name, however, is not on the site.

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