Proposed Arlington High-Rises Imperil Reagan National Aircraft, FAA Rules

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

Arlington is staking the future of its economy on building high-rises near Metro stations, part of the county's nationally recognized smart-growth, transit-friendly strategy that broadens its tax base.

But standing in the way is the Federal Aviation Administration, which is concerned that some of the planned construction could threaten air safety for planes flying in and out of Reagan National Airport. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the agency stepped up its protection of the airspace over Washington.

Three times in the past year, most recently last week, the FAA has ruled that planned high-rises in Crystal City, Rosslyn and the 2300 block of Columbia Pike would pose a "presumed hazard" to aircraft using the airport.

The FAA, on its own, has no legal authority to stop the project, but Arlington Economic Development director Terry Holzheimer said the county will not allow buildings that do not meet FAA scrutiny to go forward and will not do anything "that causes a problem."

However, with "some time and some attorneys' fees," he said, he believes the aviation agency's concerns will be resolved and the buildings will go up.

"I think ultimately all these buildings will be approved," Holzheimer said. "I don't think we have proposed anything unreasonable."

But Leo J. Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group that promotes the development of the region's airports, said that although he applauds Arlington's efforts to "move into a more vibrant future," the county's plan of building high-rises near the airport "defies common sense."

"It's just plain dumb to put tall trees, large buildings or cell towers in the flight path of airports," he said. "It's like telling your kids to go play on the freeway."

The most recent project to hit an FAA-imposed roadblock is a six-story retail and residential complex planned for Columbia Pike, which the aviation agency said last week should not be taller than nine feet, or about one story. The project, known as Siena Park, located about 2 1/2 miles from National, is one of the cornerstones of an effort to remake Arlington's Columbia Pike area into a more traditional "Main Street."

The agency similarly gave the presumed-hazard label to a 31-story high-rise in Rosslyn, which would be the tallest building in the D.C. area, a project approved May 5 by the Arlington County Board. The FAA said the building would have received a "favorable determination" if it had been substantially smaller. County officials have targeted the Rosslyn area for denser development because they say it has a Metro station and won't add to the region's traffic problems.

The aviation agency has also cited concerns with a plan to add six stories to an existing mid-rise structure in Crystal City, saying "it would have an adverse physical or electromagnetic interference effect" on planes. Arlington has been hoping to reduce the damage it will suffer when 9,000 federal workers leave Crystal City as part of the federal base realignment project, and it had planned to build taller buildings there to market the views to the private sector.

Property owners and government officials who do not like the FAA rulings can seek a further, more detailed review from the agency, present opinions from experts and possibly win a reversal, said Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman.

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