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

By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; B01

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

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.

"It was completely unusual to have a woman buying the land, and a black woman at that," Stuntz said.

There is little known about Carter, Stuntz said, but she is believed to have been a descendant of Chief Powhatan, the influential 17th-century American Indian and father of Pocahontas.

After Carter died in 1866, the land was divided among her heirs. In 1925, Barnes's great-grandmother bought 3.87 acres on the former Carter lot. But Barnes's aunt Thelma Lawe remembers that her grandparents, mother, aunts and uncles lived on the land at some point and owned more than seven acres.

"Everybody back there was related," said Lawe, 82 and living in Southeast Washington. "It was humongous. It was great."

For Lawe, it was a rustic, but idyllic, childhood. The kids would heat well water twice a week for baths. In the summer, they would shower in the rain.

The rural lifestyle continued with Barnes's generation. Her father bought an acre from his grandmother in the early 1960s and built the two-story house where Barnes grew up.

Barnes's father was a self-employed dump truck driver and her mother a cafeteria worker and school bus driver. While her parents were at work, Barnes's great grandmother watched the children as they batted rocks, played hide-and-seek and picked the apple trees.

"You didn't have to worry about nobody, but you had to be in before it got dark," she said, smiling.

Ready to sell

Everything changed in summer 1978.

On Sept. 1, Barnes's great uncle, father and two aunts, including Lawe, gathered in Fairfax County Circuit Court for a condemnation hearing. The Fairfax County Park Authority bought their land through eminent domain and paid the family $185,000 for 6.6 acres, court records show. About $11,000 went to satisfy delinquent real estate taxes.

Lawe said most of her family was ready to sell.

"My sister had her home, my brother had his and I had mine. We just got tired of paying taxes on some land that we at least figured we would never use," she said.

The family's land eventually became part of Raglan Road Park, almost 11 acres of woods that buffer neighborhoods from Tysons' busy roads and shopping centers.

A chance to cash out

A few years ago, developer Steven M. Baldwin discovered Barnes's property and the two adjoining lots tucked behind a gravel road at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. An Arizona couple owns 1.18 acres of vacant land, and Barnes's cousin owned a house on 0.6 acres.

Baldwin, the president of Rockville-based Palisades Development, approached the three families about buying their land so he could build a subdivision. Barnes's property was the most complicated, surrounded by Raglan Road Park, so Baldwin asked the county whether it would swap the tract with some parkland to create a consolidated development.

Judith Pedersen, a spokeswoman with the park authority, said the agency had no interest in the swap.

"At that point, it did not look like the best choice for the park authority," she said. "We don't swap land as a general rule, because we didn't feel there was a benefit to the park authority."

In July 2008, Baldwin submitted a rezoning application with Fairfax County to build two single-family houses and 14 townhouses.

The project spurred nearby residents to mobilize because they feared a private street for the subdivision would be used by commuters to cut through their neighborhoods.

Pamela Konde, who lives near Barnes's land, said she thought the planned townhouses would be too dense for the area, but she did not oppose two single-family houses.

"That character, that single-family neighborhood, is something we don't want to be encroached on," she said. "That treed parkland buffers us, our neighborhood, from the sites and sounds of the incoming Metro" and the future development in Tysons.

Baldwin said the families had watched the surrounding communities develop over the years and were ready for their chance to make a profit.

"They want their turn, and they're faced with opposition that they never put forth when everyone else did the same thing," he said. "People can judge whether that's fair or not, but that's the reality of it."

A dream slips away

As the project went through its hurdles, Barnes struggled to make ends meet.

Her husband was out of work, having suffered a heart attack that required quadruple bypass surgery. Barnes had two mild strokes in 2007, forcing her to retire early from the Fairfax County school system. Unable to afford their mortgage, the couple listed their house as a short sale and moved into a rental. To help pay the bills, Barnes returned to work as a bus driver's aide.

Her brother, who declined to comment, was the point of contact for their land. Around Christmas of last year, he called with more bad news: The deal had fallen apart.

Barnes cried that night, thinking: "Here we go again. I'll never get ahead."

Baldwin said he pulled the rezoning application in June because two of the three property owners decided not to sell.

"As time went on, they grew weary of the process," he said.

Baldwin would not disclose contract details, but he said that "the market had changed, and I was trying to explain to them what it would take to work." He told the families that the project could have fewer approved lots than originally planned, which "affects the purchase price."

Barnes is waiting to sell the property so she can shore up her finances. One potential buyer is the park authority, although Barnes hopes the agency does not condemn her family's land, as it did in 1978. The county blueprint for Tysons says Barnes's land is intended to become an extension of Raglan Road Park. As Tysons grows, the plan calls for the park to serve as a possible location for a recreation facility and as an open-space buffer between the Vienna neighborhoods and the rest of Tysons.

Pederson said that the park authority could acquire the land in the future but that "as a policy we do not comment on land acquisition."

On a recent morning, Barnes visited her old home, carefully stepping through the damp grass.

"It just brings back memories," she said with a sigh. "That's the oak tree we used to play hide-and-go-seek behind."

Barnes admits she regrets moving to Fredericksburg before the sale of her land was finalized.

"Yeah, I moved too quick," she said. "But the house was falling apart."

Barnes, on the other hand, is doing her best not to.

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