Questioning Growth on the Q.T.

Many Great Falls residences are on lots of two to 20 acres, and some people worry that discussing the village's future will promote too much growth.
Many Great Falls residences are on lots of two to 20 acres, and some people worry that discussing the village's future will promote too much growth. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Great Falls residents are proud of their no-sidewalk community of horses and estates set above the Potomac River. But they're so afraid of change that they're reluctant even to talk about amenities they want for fear of the steroidal growth it might ignite: a bigger Safeway, a farmers market, a teen center, an assisted-living home. Maybe even a Starbucks.

The local civic association has devised a way to drag out of them what they really want: the 2020 Vision Project, a search for the soul of a place that Washingtonian magazine designated this year as one of the richest Zip codes in the country.

To communities transformed long ago by subdivisions and sewer lines, some goals might seem like tiny tweaks to the suburban landscape. But in the well-to-do northern corner of Fairfax County, where the county supervisor's support last year for a new water pipe to supply 53 homes made her an enemy to some people, even small changes hold big threats that a Tysons Corner could be around the corner.

"McLean is like a township, and so are Vienna and Reston," said Jackie Taylor, president of the Great Falls Citizens Association, which is heading the project. "They have some say in their destiny." Great Falls, though, is just 22066, a set of boundaries that denies any formal self-government.

The first step toward hearing from Great Falls's 18,000 residents was a "values" survey completed last month. Now, focus groups that include seniors, artists, stay-at-home moms and teenagers are underway, although a meeting for teenagers was canceled when no one showed up. A detailed survey will be sent this winter, asking residents how they want Great Falls to look in 14 years.

As for their values, people love their rural existence, living 17 miles from Washington on from two to 20 acres. They place a premium on the streams that run through their protected watershed. Yet, the survey found, residents might not become involved in sketching their future.

"They're afraid to say what they really want because it would lead to more density," said association member Kathleen Murphy, who analyzed the values survey. In a report on the results, she said discussion of Great Falls's rural character "evokes fear and shuts down the healthy controversy that needs to occur" to deal with the threat of development.

This hasn't prevented dozens of residents from weighing in on their future in a book of blank pages at the Great Falls Library, where anonymous comments reveal pressure points. "Let's make sure the Beltway doesn't come through here!" reads one comment, which is followed by a plea for no sidewalks: "We are not Reston and should not look like it!" Others want fewer banks in the Village Centre on Georgetown Pike -- there are seven with another on the way -- and complain of too many streetlamps lighting the narrow, winding cul-de-sacs. "No more new homes!" someone wrote.

But on just as many wish lists are more amenities. Things sought by newcomers in new enclaves with names such as Versailles: sidewalks, bike paths and a trail system so that people near the Village Centre can walk to town. "Please allow all different types of housing so many types of people can live here," one resident wrote. "Teachers as well as lawyers."

Another asked: "Could we please get a rotisserie chicken carryout and a decent fast-food place? Also, I don't object to a Starbucks." The Safeway, the community's sole supermarket, is derided by some as too pricey. "It doesn't even have a salad bar," one comment says. Another asks for housing for seniors among the mansions and remaining 1950s ramblers. "Old people don't require extensive infrastructure."

Yet trails mean asphalt or, in some cases, the often controversial taking of private land. A new retail business raises the most divisive issue in the community: whether to bring in sewer lines to replace aging septic systems in many neighborhoods. Businesses must pump and haul their waste away as do the local volunteer fire department and the elementary school.

Any new business requiring a high volume of water -- a coffee shop or restaurant -- would further strain the system. But sewer lines are an all-or-nothing prospect that alarms many people with concerns that hookups would bring high-density development.

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