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Hard times for Tysons Corner landowner when $1.2 million deal collapses

Donna Barnes and her husband get by mostly on her pension and his Social Security benefits. But about 55 miles north of her home in Fredericksburg, Barnes is sitting on a possible windfall.

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Map of Barnes property in Fairfax, Virginia
Mary Kate Cannistra/The Washington Post
By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Donna Barnes, a retired school bus driver, lives a modest life with her husband in a rented brick townhouse.

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The couple get by mostly on her pension and his Social Security benefits. But about 55 miles north of her home in Fredericksburg, Barnes is sitting on a possible windfall. She might be cash poor, but she is land rich -- and wonders whether her family will ever benefit.

Barnes, 56, and her two siblings inherited an acre in Tysons Corner, one of the nation's most successful business districts. Tysons is expected to prosper even more as the site of four stops along a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recently approved areas closest to the stations for more dense development, and Barnes's property is less than a mile from one of the future stops, scheduled to open in 2013.

The land, which once included more than seven acres, has been in Barnes's family since the early 1900s. They were one of a few black families who lived in Tysons when it was a rural crossroads of dairy farms. Barnes grew up on the property and raised her two children there.

About five years ago, her brother called with promising news: A developer was offering them $1.2 million for their land, which lies between a neighborhood and public parkland. Barnes instantly thought about what she would do with her share -- put a down payment on a new house, buy her husband a Ford pickup and stash some money away for their adult children.

"I was excited," Barnes said. "I thought it was going to be a solid deal."

The house, which had many plumbing problems, was a burden, and Barnes said she wanted "a new start." She and her husband moved, buying a split-level in Fredericksburg in 2006.

"That's why we moved," Barnes said. "We thought it was going to be sold."

The developer proposed to build a subdivision on a plot that included two adjacent properties, but when he kept extending the purchase contract, Barnes started to worry.

"We were right in the middle of the park, and I knew something wasn't going to work right," she said. "It was taking too long."

Tied to the land

Barnes's land has a rich history. In 1842, a free black woman named Keziah Carter bought 50 acres of the Wolf Trap Plantation from a prominent Fairfax County family for $300. Connie Stuntz, a well-known amateur historian, wrote about the purchase in "This Was Vienna, Virginia," a book she co-authored with her husband.


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