Hunter Mill Land Use A Study in County's Future

Thursday, February 2, 2006

After more than six months of organizing, listening to briefings and hearing the planning community's input, a Fairfax County citizen task force has approved recommendations on land use for approximately 300 acres of land around the Dulles Airport Access and Toll Roads, Hunter Mill Road and Sunset Hills Road adjacent to Reston and Vienna.

The exercise, and a similar controversy surrounding the MetroWest development near the Vienna Metro station, has exposed a wound in the body politic in Fairfax County that deserves immediate attention from the Board of Supervisors.

Domicile to more than 1 million residents, Fairfax County has transformed from its rural roots to one of the most vibrant suburban jurisdictions in the nation. With its urban centers, including Tysons Corner and Reston, it is home to 500,000 jobs at 28,000 businesses and organizations.

The question now facing Fairfax is, what's next? Will the county continue to be a suburban area with urban pockets, or will the entire county become urbanized?

The Hunter Mill study group's attempt to address several issues in the context of a small geographic area was difficult, if not impossible. These issues are countywide, not local, and the solutions cannot be addressed on a site-specific basis . Issues such as affordable housing, infill development, a lack of parks and recreation opportunities, and traffic congestion are not only relevant in the Hunter Mill study area, but they must be confronted throughout the rest of the county.

Fairfax has reached a critical point in its growth and development. It is time for a countywide discussion on the future of the county and the next stage of growth and development. Do the citizens of Fairfax, many of whom migrated from the District, Arlington and Alexandria, want further urbanization? For people who enjoy suburban living, is a move to Loudoun, Prince William or beyond the only answer?

A look at a map of the comprehensive plan, beginning at the Potomac River in Great Falls in the north, shows a large swath of yellow, designating low-density residential development. The swath continues through the Difficult Run watershed all the way to Oakton. The swath is part of a plan, created some 30 years ago as a vision for the county and maintained ever since, that has resulted in stable, attractive residential neighborhoods and two of the most dynamic and powerful business centers in the world -- Tysons Corner and Reston, which the swath separates.

The Hunter Mill Task Force was asked whether to change the plan map. A revision to increase density would set an irreversible precedent for Fairfax County.

For some 40 years, two fundamental planning principles governed this part of the county. The comprehensive plan has long envisioned urban employment centers in Reston and Tysons Corner, with a low-density residential buffer in between. Moreover, from the time of Robert E. Simon's original plan for Reston, there has always been a "greenbelt" preserved around that planned community. Reston's highest density is in the Town Center, and development is tiered or scaled down toward its outer edge. On the north, east, south and southwest boundaries of Reston, there is low-density residential development -- homes on large lots. (The exception, the Town of Herndon to the west, is governed by its own land use, not Fairfax's.)

The task force charge to consider proposals to increase the density at Sunset Hills and Hunter Mill violates both principles. Such an action would change the character of Fairfax forever.

A proposal from a group of developers would add more than 1,800 vehicles a day to roads that cannot handle today's demand. Rail would offer little relief, as this area is some two miles from the proposed Wiehle station -- a distance no one would walk. Moreover, 65 percent of vehicle trips are non-commuting; they are trips to the grocery store, soccer practice, church and other destinations for which rail is not an option.

Schools serving the area are already at or near capacity and cannot handle additional density. A change in the plan would not only tip the first of many land-use planning dominoes, but it would threaten other low-density residential areas in the county.

Is this the future that the citizens of Fairfax County want? How do the citizens want to transform the county? How should we deal with affordable housing, infill development, parks, schools and congestion? It is time for the Board of Supervisors to convene a countywide dialogue to create a consensus on issues related to future growth and development.

Palatiello is president of a public affairs consulting firm in Reston.

County officials recently said they would drop consideration of changes in Fairfax's land-use plan that would have allowed about 2,000 homes to be built in an area near Hunter Mill Road and the Dulles Toll Road. John M. Palatiello, who was on the county Planning Commission from 1993 to 2002, represents the Equestrian Park Homeowners Association. Members of the association live near the area where the homes would have gone.

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