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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.

"If we issue a determination and they don't like it, they can appeal it to headquarters," Peters said.

Holzheimer and FAA officials said it is possible to lessen dangers by installing flashing lights atop buildings, painting them a vivid orange and white, changing airline flight paths and giving pilots different information to use in charting their course.

Schefer said he doesn't think those measures go far enough. "If a highly unlikely series of events coincide -- a power failure, bad weather, a jet on the wrong course -- all of a sudden you have a disaster," he said. "If that happens, the people who allowed the building to be put up should be held responsible."

The developers of the three projects are convinced they will be able to persuade FAA officials to change their minds during the appeal process.

"We think they'll approve it as it is," said Kathleen Webb, principal of JBG, which is proposing the 31-story tower, which would be part of a pair with a 30-story residential tower in Rosslyn. "It's an issue to be resolved, but I think it will be resolved in a fashion that will let us proceed."

Webb noted that the FAA has approved other tall buildings that are closer to the airport. Similarly, the proposed Columbia Pike building that was criticized by the FAA is near buildings that are taller than what the builder, Woodfield Investments, is planning on its site.

The FAA's ruling on that case is "a little silly," Holzheimer said. "It's not a tall building close to the airport, but somehow it triggered a review."

Holzheimer said FAA officials review proposed buildings on a case-by-case basis instead of providing communities with better guidance about what is likely to be permitted and what is not. He added that county officials have asked the agency for a more comprehensive review for making decisions that affect local development.

"We've asked the FAA to change the way they look at the world," he said.

If the FAA's determinations are not set aside or the questions resolved, years of planning effort could be wasted.

"It makes it tough for Arlington government planning," said county planning Commissioner Jim Pebley. "We go through our process for years -- an elaborate, detailed process to vet everything with the community -- and then it goes to the FAA and ends up with a notice of 'presumed hazard.' If you can't mitigate it, you can end up back at square one."

Larry Mayer, president of the Arlington County Civic Federation, said he is worried that county officials may not fully recognize the dangers of tall buildings built on flight paths because they want to maintain the county's strong economic foundation.

"There's a perverse incentive to have all this development because you increase your tax base," Mayer said.

He questioned whether officials were overly dependent on the FAA to ensure residents' safety. In December, the civic federation unanimously passed a resolution urging county officials not to permit buildings taller than 300 feet to be built in Rosslyn if they posed a possible threat to air travel.

"There are consultants around who know how to honcho things through the FAA, but our concern is safety," Mayer said.

Although the FAA relies on local governments to voluntarily halt development plans, the process doesn't always work smoothly, and land-use disputes can carry substantial price tags.

The agency is mired in an ugly dispute in San Diego because a 12-story high-rise, the first of a trio of buildings, has been built near a general-aviation airstrip. The developer has refused the FAA's demand to reduce the size of the building, saying it would cause a loss of more than $100 million. The city and state have sued the developer, who has countersued.

The land-use battle has reverberated loudly in San Diego, where a jet on its landing approach crashed into a neighborhood in 1978, killing 144 people.

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