Clearing the Road for Building Near Metro

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

Fairfax County leaders have put out the word: The county's future lies in "transit-oriented development." The only problem is, developers, residents and county officials haven't been able to agree on what that means.

Now, some clarity may be emerging. After six months of public hearings, a group of county Planning Commission members has produced an eight-page draft of guidelines for future transit-oriented development in Fairfax. The public can comment on the draft at a Jan. 17 hearing.

The push for guidelines came after a series of contentious disputes over several building proposals that aspired to the mantle of transit-oriented development, the label Fairfax officials use to describe the kind of high-density growth near Metro stations of which they'd like to see more. Last year, a developer unsuccessfully pitched 1,800 homes near Hunter Mill Road and the Dulles Toll Road as a transit-oriented project, even though it was more than a mile from a planned Metro station.

In June, the county approved MetroWest, 2,250 homes plus office and retail space at the Vienna Metro station, over the objections of residents who said the proposal lacked the wide mix of uses and neighborhood input needed for successful transit-oriented development. Before that, the county blocked a nearby neighborhood that wanted to sell out to a developer for another high-rise project, on the grounds that that neighborhood was too far from the Metro station, a little more than a half-mile, to qualify as transit-oriented development.

To try to avoid such disagreements, the new guidelines set a geographic boundary for transit-oriented development: a quarter-mile from rail stations for the most intensive development, tapering to at most a half-mile for less dense construction. That is the radius -- about a 10-minute walk -- that transportation planners generally estimate as the limit from which people can be expected to walk to a station instead of drive.

But, notably, the guidelines subject those limits to "site-specific considerations" -- that the limits could be raised or lowered depending on how difficult or pleasant the walk to a station is.

"One of the major things everyone agreed with is that each development is unique," said Frank de la Fe, a planning commissioner representing Hunter Mill District. "In downtown Washington, you're willing to walk more than a mile because it's not unpleasant and relatively easy. But if you're climbing up a hill and cross a 14-lane highway, that's different. You have to take more into account than the distance as the crow flies."

Another significant proposed guideline is a requirement that major transit-oriented projects be subjected to a thorough vetting by existing residents -- "a broadly inclusive, collaborative community process that examines . . . proposed changes in use, intensity and impacts on and opportunities for improvements to public infrastructure."

This language cheered opponents of the MetroWest project, who say one of their primary objections was that it was presented as a fait accompli by the developer, Pulte Homes. A leading opponent, Charlie Hall, chairman of the Providence District Council, said that if neighbors had been given more of a say, they probably would have accepted it -- after doing their best to shave off several hundred housing units and expand the amount of shopping to reduce the need for residents to drive.

"Now, if [developers] just say, 'This is what we're going to do,' it would be a major strike against them," Hall said. "We always felt most of the community would have supported a major development at MetroWest. But . . . most of us got sandblasted as zealots."

Hall said he was concerned that the draft applies to development near all rail stations without distinguishing among Metro, Virginia Railway Express and any other light or heavy rail line that might be built.

The intensive transit-oriented development contemplated by the county would not be appropriate near VRE stations in places like Burke and Clifton, he said: "It would be terrible if every little station became the heart of the next MetroWest."

Michael Horwatt, a land-use lawyer based in Reston who has advised developers on several major projects and participated in the hearings leading to the guidelines, said that he, too, was mostly satisfied with the draft. He said the requirement for community input needs to be spelled out in more specific terms so that everyone understands what that entails, and to ensure that it conforms with state law.

But, he said, he was surprised that he had found so much common ground with residents. "I changed my perspective about some of the ideas I had, and also about some of the people involved," he said. "There may genuinely be a willingness on the part of communities to entertain proposals for large-scale development around transit stations if, at the beginning of the process, there is an openness by parcel owners for exploring community aspirations for the area."

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