Developers' Neglect Is Costly for Fairfax

Water pools on one of the unfinished streets at Metro Place at Dunn Loring, which also has dozens of dead or missing trees from a landscaping plan that was promised in 1999.
Water pools on one of the unfinished streets at Metro Place at Dunn Loring, which also has dozens of dead or missing trees from a landscaping plan that was promised in 1999. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

More than 120 construction projects in Fairfax County neighborhoods have been left incomplete for years -- some a decade or longer -- because developers failed to make the public improvements they promised when their building plans were approved, according to records and interviews.

The neglect by developers means that many Fairfax residents paid premium prices for homes in neighborhoods with poorly built or unfinished roads, inadequate storm-water retention ponds, incomplete landscaping and missing walking or biking trails.

Some of the circumstances are similar to those of Clarksburg Town Center, the Montgomery County community where building irregularities and missing amenities touched off a broad examination of development policies.

The unfinished work in Fairfax, which involves condominiums and office projects as well as residential neighborhoods, has cost county taxpayers $1.1 million over the past five years, records show. The Fairfax government has stepped in to complete some of the improvements, which developers agreed to include to win permission to build.

Later this year, for example, Fairfax will spend $300,000 or more, mainly to redo an internal road ringing Williamsburg Commons, an Oakton community of million-dollar homes.

Some residents of Metro Place at Dunn Loring, a townhouse development in Merrifield, are living among unfinished streets and dozens of dead or missing trees, part of a landscaping plan that was promised in 1999. The county is seeking about $300,000 from the developer's insurance company to complete the work.

The growing backlog of what Fairfax officials call "critical defaults" has prompted some members of the Board of Supervisors to criticize County Executive Anthony H. Griffin. Board members say that Griffin's staff has taken a lax attitude toward holding builders accountable and that reductions in the number of staff members at the agency charged with enforcing development agreements -- from seven to two since 2000 -- have compounded the problem. The board has asked its auditor, John J. Adair, to investigate.

Especially frustrating, supervisors say, is the lengthy interval between default and completion of the work, which averages four years. It is attributable in part, records show, to the county's practice of often waiting until the five-year statute of limitations is nearly expired before suing developers.

"This is not at the level of priority that it needs to be," board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said.

Griffin said staffing, not a lack of aggressiveness, is the issue. "This is something that tends to ebb and flow," he said, noting that the robust real estate market gives developers incentive to move on to the next lucrative project without finishing the one at hand.

"Unfortunately, it's a situation where the development community is not well-served by some of their brethren," Griffin said. He added that he would soon recommend more staff for enforcing development agreements.

There is often a lag between completion of a project and promised infrastructure or amenities. County records show 501 ventures in "technical default," meaning developers have not met deadlines but are still, according to inspectors, working in good faith toward completion.

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