Fairfax Rezoning Urged for Job Shift

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008

Fairfax County is considering a proposal that would substantially increase development around Fort Belvoir, saying it is needed to support the Army's shift of thousands of jobs to the base. But the plan is worrying state officials, who warn that it could set back efforts to keep traffic from paralyzing major commuter routes.

A task force appointed by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors has recommended that the county rewrite its zoning map to allow for more offices, shops, hotels and restaurants, as well as a modest increase in residential development in the Fort Belvoir and Springfield areas.

The aim is to put in place amenities for about 12,000 workers slated to be moved to Fort Belvoir and the nearby Engineer Proving Ground by 2011 as part of a broad base realignment plan by Congress and the Army. The task force focused primarily on providing enough office space to accommodate government contractors, who are likely to move to the fringes of the base because of the Army's plan.

State officials, however, say that the amount of development recommended is excessive and that because it is not all concentrated around mass transit, it could have disastrous consequences for Interstate 95, the Fairfax County Parkway and Route 1. County planners have estimated that space is needed for 7,500 contractors to support Fort Belvoir, but the task force has recommended enough development to create more than 23,500 additional jobs in the area. That's about equivalent to the number of people who work at the Pentagon.

"We know for a fact there's not enough rail, not enough highway and not enough bus service to handle existing uses, let alone planned uses," Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said. "The traffic conditions today [on the Fairfax County Parkway] are deplorable. It's a stop-and-go level of service. . . . Any traveler in the corridor can vouch for that."

Moreover, Homer said, the proposal could undermine the efforts of county, state and congressional leaders who negotiated with the Army for years to minimize the impact of the base realignment plan on traffic.

When the Army announced its plans in 2005, it proposed shifting more than 20,000 workers to Fort Belvoir and the Engineer Proving Ground. Because of the lobbying efforts, the Army scaled back its plans somewhat and agreed to cap the number of jobs to be moved to the Engineer Proving Ground at about 8,500. About 3,400 jobs are moving to Fort Belvoir.

Last month, the Army revealed that 6,400 workers slated for the Engineer Proving Ground would be shifted to a private development in Alexandria.

In a letter this summer to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, Homer warned that approving even part of the plan "would effectively diminish or eliminate the value of the Army's employment cap on the Engineer Proving Ground site, and likely bring us back to failing conditions" on I-95, the Fairfax County Parkway and other roadways.

The state objections have riled some county officials and members of the task force, who say the concerns are overblown. They have seized on the Army's plan as an opportunity to revitalize some depressed parts of the area, including downtown Springfield, which has languished despite its proximity to mass transit and three major interstates.

Supporters of the comprehensive plan amendment note that commercial developers would be required to give the county millions of dollars in proffers to offset the effect on traffic, while the federal government has no requirements. And they say it makes sense to concentrate the development around Fort Belvoir, rather than encouraging contractors to set up shop further away, where they would be forced to drive longer distances to get to the base.

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said state officials are overreacting because of their failure to solve Northern Virginia's crippling traffic problems.

"Obviously, the folks in Richmond are very concerned about transportation in general because they can't come to grips or pass anything for transportation," he said. "So instead, they're saying the county should stop progress. I can't abide by that."

The 18-member task force has been working since April to craft recommendations for the planning commission and the Board of Supervisors, which are both scheduled to decide on the plan piecemeal over the next several months.

The task force analyzed more than 30 applications from individual landowners and developers. However, Homer and others, including the Coalition for Smarter Growth, have urged the county to adopt a more comprehensive approach to development.

County planners who helped the task force have put forward their own recommendations, which would add a more modest amount of retail and office space, equivalent to about 12,000 new jobs.

Task force members, who said they were aware of traffic concerns, said there are ample checks and balances to make sure the area can handle the development. Not only must the comprehensive plan amendments be approved by the planning commission and the supervisors, but, in most cases, the individual applicants would have to come back to the county to apply for a rezoning of their property before any development can take place. And ultimately, the pace and scale of development will be guided by the market.

"There are ways to put the brakes on the development if it seems to be exceeding significantly the traffic capacity of the surrounding transportation network," said Richard F. Neel Jr., president of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corp. and a member of the task force. "There's a lot more in terms of land use and public approvals, which would occur before we ever get to any groundbreaking."

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