In MetroWest, Hard Lessons On Land Use

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lisa Rein recently wrote of the MetroWest development [Fairfax Activists Expand Land-Use Mission After MetroWest Defeat, April 23], "No project in the county's recent history has drawn so much interest."

Her assessment is correct. Before we move on to a much bigger proposed redevelopment of Tysons Corner and Reston, it is important to draw some lessons for the future.

First, there is no substitute for public involvement. The county and the developer sought community acceptance for more than three years, but failed. According to the developer, only four neighborhoods supported the project.

Their failure to persuade the public had many causes. Instead of using a grass-roots, inclusive group to review MetroWest, as should be the norm, the county appointed a small work group that met out of the public eye yet later was held up as legitimate and authoritative.

A second cause was the refusal to compromise on issues of prime importance to the public -- such as scaling back density and saving trees and green space.

Finally, the county did not show that it had a realistic vision for incorporating a project of this scale into a community whose roads, schools, parks and other resources are strained.

Another common-sense lesson is that impact analyses should be public in the sense that they are commissioned by the county and performed by independent, third-party professionals, not by the developer's consultants. Basing decision-making on analyses generated by the developer does not make for a public process and good governance.

Some positives did emerge, and we hope to see more of them.

For instance, residents insisted that a supervisor-appointed task force considering a proposed Hunter Mill development conduct open, advertised meetings in settings large enough for citizens to attend.

Also at the request of citizens, county leaders belatedly are trying to define what they mean when they discuss "transit-oriented development."

We should learn from Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage's "Clarksburg: Lessons Learned" [Washington Post: Close to Home, March 5]. After referring to award-winning planners, he stated that "even the best can falter." He said that Clarksburg "contains lessons for all growing jurisdictions in this area -- especially those that want to embrace 'smart growth.' " He added: "But are the region's planning agencies and regulatory processes up to the task of regulating such growth? Our Clarksburg experience suggests the answer is 'not quite yet.' "

The good news is that residents across the county are assisting one another and have proven that they can organize and conduct meetings in which all voices are welcomed and respected. In those meetings, the community has not said no to growth. We are saying, "Citizens want to help plan Fairfax County's future" through involvement, with accountability from county leaders and a process we can trust. The stakes are too great to leave it all to the developers and the planners.

William S. Elliott is the spokesman for Fairfax Citizens for Responsible Growth ( and helped FairGrowth, along with other citizen groups, sponsor a town hall meeting in April 2005 to discuss the effect of development on traffic, schools, public parks and the environment. He is an international economic development consultant and lives on the south side of the Vienna Metro station. He wrote this piece on behalf of FairGrowth's board.

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