'Smart Growth' Is a Matter Of Opinion in Fairfax County

The county
The county "draws an imaginary line," says Everette Justus, shown clearing limbs from his front yard in Vienna. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

To hear Fairfax County leaders tell it, nearly every bit of empty or underused land close to a Metro station is a golden opportunity to develop dense, new housing that can absorb residential growth without aggravating sprawl or traffic.

But as residents of Poplar Terrace will tell you, the county's vision comes with an asterisk: One person's definition of "close" isn't the same as another's. Their neighborhood, 70 aging brick ramblers on large lots roughly a 10-minute walk from the Vienna station, might seem ideally suited for apartments and townhouses. Yet when a builder offered to buy them out for that purpose, the county blocked it, saying the site is too far from the station.

The county's denial is particularly puzzling to residents because officials appear poised to approve the 2,250-home MetroWest development on the site of another aging subdivision just through the woods. Now, some Poplar Terrace residents have become so fed up with waiting for the county to change its stance that they are instead selling to buyers who will replace their homes with McMansions.

"It doesn't make sense," said Dennis Miller, 58, a retired gas company worker who has lived most of his life in the home his father built in 1962. "They talk about 'smart growth' and everything, and then they turn around and don't let you do it."

The tale of the two properties near the last stop of the Orange Line illustrates Fairfax's deep ambivalence about its future as an urbanizing suburb, where more than 1 million residents leave little room to put the tens of thousands more workers expected in coming years. It also points to the struggles of Fairfax, as well as other Washington suburbs, to come up with a consistent standard for "transit-oriented" development.

That catchphrase has been hailed as the key to solving the region's housing shortage and traffic woes -- to build up, not out. But as the contrasting fates of the Vienna parcels show, implementing the concept can be messy, with planning ideals often subordinated to the whims of local politics.

The challenge of finding a coherent approach to building around Metro is particularly acute in Fairfax, because its five stations, and the five it is scheduled to get by 2011, are scattered across varying areas and are at sites that don't lend themselves easily to transit-oriented development. The Vienna station, for instance, sits in the median of Interstate 66 and is ringed by large parking garages and lots filled by the thousands of far-flung commuters who drive to the station daily.

By contrast, the five stations in Arlington are closer together, reducing the need for parking. Officials there fought early on to put the stations along a central commercial corridor instead of along I-66, making it easier to plan development around them.

Fairfax officials have asked the county's planning staff to come up with a clearer definition of transit-oriented development so that residents and builders can know what to expect. Still, officials say it is unrealistic to expect a truly consistent approach to the concept, saying that every case needs to be judged on its own terms.

"We don't make land-use decisions based only on pure planning efficiency. There are human factors to take into consideration," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who has embraced MetroWest. "I don't worship at the altar of some theoretical density guide."

In the case of Poplar Terrace, developer Centex Homes asked the county two years ago to allow for 30 homes per acre on the 40-acre site instead of the one or two homes per acre permitted now. The company offered residents about $700,000 for the typical half-acre lot in the neighborhood -- well more than the $400,000 that most of them are worth -- and planned to replace them with a mix of townhouses and four- or six-story buildings with condominiums and apartments, said Mark Anstine, a broker on the deal.

Centex's requested density was less than that being sought by Pulte Homes Inc. at the nearby 60-acre site for the Fairlee neighborhood just south of the Vienna station. Despite vocal opposition, Fairfax officials initially approved that project, MetroWest, and appear inclined to give it final approval this spring.

But a residents' task force appointed by Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) turned down Centex's proposal at Poplar Terrace, most of which lies a quarter-mile to a half-mile from the station. The developer appealed to county officials, offering to drop the apartments and settle for a lower density of 10 or so townhouses per acre, but that failed, and Centex pulled out of the deal in January, Anstine said.

County officials say the explanation for the rejection was simple: The MetroWest site lies adjacent to the station's parking garages, but Poplar Terrace is farther away, outside the quarter-mile arc that transit experts say produces the most subway riders.

Smyth justified rejecting Centex's proposal by invoking Arlington, which redeveloped areas closest to its stations before moving out from there. And Arlington planners drew clear lines outside of which higher-density building would not be allowed, to keep urbanization from encroaching too much on suburban neighborhoods. "You do need to draw lines and say, 'Here's where it makes sense; here's where it doesn't,' " she said. "If you keep shifting lines, that's when you destabilize neighborhoods."

Poplar Terrace residents question Smyth's defense, saying her opposition probably had more to do with not wanting to rile voters when there was a battle brewing over MetroWest. They say that they often walk to the Vienna station and that Centex offered to create a path through a park to make the trip more direct. It takes about eight minutes to reach the station from the closer end of the neighborhood and about 14 minutes from the farther end -- close enough that the county erected signs prohibiting commuters from parking there during the day.

"This is not a stone's throw distance from Metro, but [the county] draws an imaginary line at the park," said Everette Justus, 74, a retired dental equipment salesman who has lived in Poplar Terrace since 1979.

Residents also disagree that building townhouses and apartments at Poplar Terrace would threaten other neighborhoods because the surrounding area, even farther from Metro, is dominated by townhouses and condominiums. Far from being a domino in a row of single-family neighborhoods, they said, Poplar Terrace is becoming an island hemmed in by the hundreds of cars passing it at rush hour going to and from the station.

To try to preserve the neighborhood is to ignore the transformation of Fairfax, said Miller, who can remember before I-66 was built, when the area was dotted with farms and his mile-plus newspaper route had only a dozen customers. "It's going to change," said Miller, who plans to move to Charlottesville. "You have more people. It's called growth."

Buttressing the residents' case is the fact that the quarter-mile rule invoked by officials on Poplar Terrace hasn't always applied in other parts of the county. Last year, officials gave serious consideration to a 2,000-home proposal near Hunter Mill Road that claimed the "transit-friendly" mantle although it was almost two miles from a planned stop in Reston. The plan collapsed under fierce public opposition.

At Tysons Corner, the county has approved two dense residential projects, even though they are more than a half-mile from the Metro stops planned there. It has also approved a project adjacent to one of the stops, even though it contains relatively few housing units. The county has taken the most care in planning development around its Dunn Loring stop, although it settled for lower residential density than had been envisioned there.

Even if Fairfax does create clearer principles to apply to development near transit, it is probably too late for Poplar Terrace. At least a dozen residents who had expected to sell to Centex and have bought new homes for themselves are in such a financial bind that they are about to sell their old homes on an individual basis, said Anstine, the broker.

Although his business will make money from the deals, Anstine said, it upsets him on principle to sell off a neighborhood so close to Metro for "70 $1.5 million homes on half-acre lots."

"It's a travesty," he said. "Where else can you get 40 acres this close to Metro? You can't, and you will not ever again. The opportunity will be gone forever."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company