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Plans for Wartime Museum in Dale City set off skirmishes

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; PW01

For 21 years, Dale City resident Bill Houston looked out his Ashdale Circle townhouse window to trees and green space -- a nice selling point if he ever wanted to put his house on the market, he said.

Now, however, not only is his pristine view about to change, but so could his property value and quality of life as the county works with officials from the National Museum of Americans in Wartime to build a $50 million museum with outdoor reenactments and demonstrations behind his community.

"We are only 38 homes . . . but they are impacting our standard of living tremendously," he said. "When you try to sell a home, you write, 'Backs to the woods.' What am I going to write? It backs to a battlefield? Who is going to want a battlefield in their back yard?"

Houston is one of several concerned neighbors who plan to attend Tuesday's Prince William Board of County Supervisors meeting, at which officials are scheduled to vote on a map amendment needed for the project to move forward. The map amendment will basically be a rezoning, county officials said, changing 40-plus acres from mostly office and high-density residential to commercial.

The Wartime Museum has been in the works for nearly a decade and is scheduled to open Veterans Day 2014 on a 70-acre plot donated by the Hylton family just off Interstate 95 and Dale Boulevard. The museum is expected to draw about 300,0000 visitors annually and have an economic impact of $15 million to $25 million a year, according to county documents.

Although the nonprofit organization that will run the museum will raise the $50 million, the county has contributed about $721,500 over the past seven years to secure the museum in Prince William, county officials said, noting that museum officials almost settled in nearby Stafford County.

"Prince William has contributed over the years seed money to the museum because it is important to the county to keep the museum in Prince William," said board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large). "Securing the museum for Prince William is a major accomplishment and benefit for the county, and it's a major shot in the arm for the Dale City area."

The museum will cover each major era from World War I to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through interactive displays and docents who will explain their personal experiences in war. The museum will be indoors and outdoors, where people can participate and watch reenactments, touch and climb aboard military vehicles and hunker in the trenches, according to county documents.

"My back yard will back up to the aircraft hangar, and some of my neighbors will see the reenactments from their windows," Houston said. "The noise it is going to generate will be tremendous. We live about 10 miles from Quantico, and we can hear when they have target practice. . . . Imagine what it will be like 200 feet from your house."

Ashdale Circle resident Bob Moore, who has lived in the townhouse community since 1985, said that as a Navy retiree who was on a ship during the Vietnam War, he doesn't need to hear the sounds of battle.

"I would be reliving all of the guns on board the ships and the missiles on board the ships," he said. "If they have cannons going off all the time, that would upset me."

Besides the noise from reenactments and running military vehicles, Moore and others said that the traffic on Dale Boulevard will be a mess -- it can already take 20 to 40 minutes to go half-a-mile during rush hour -- and that property values and quality of life might decline.

"When we purchased our home, I saw the land behind it had high-voltage lines . . . and a pretty steep grade. I said, 'There is no way this will be developed,' " Ashdale Circle resident Corey McKinney said. "It's frustrating to me as homeowner. I support that people can do what they want with their land, but they should be considerate of their neighbors."

David McGettigan of the Prince William Planning Office said a basic traffic study showed the level of service on Dale Boulevard won't drop below a D, which is about where it is now. The museum will also have to comply with all county noise regulations. A 50-foot buffer will go on museum property plus there is already a buffer that separates the housing community from the proposed museum property that is between 35 and 100 feet, McGettigan said. Calls to officials with the Wartime Museum were not returned.

Neighbors said they are not opposed to a museum but wish the county had approached them sooner. Residents said they found out only when the rezoning went to the Planning Commission for the first of three public hearings in June. County and museum officials, they said, never approached them while considering the site.

They said they are also concerned that certain planning steps will be skipped because the project is county-initiated.

"The whole economic revitalization I'm not opposed to, but what I'm opposed to is we weren't given much of a choice or even a chance for our voice to be heard," McKinney said. "At this point, it's pretty much a dog and pony show."

County officials disputed the museum's characterization as a county project, but the board did initiate map amendments at the request of museum officials. Because it is a board-initiated map amendment, there doesn't need to be a traffic or archaeological study. County officials, however, said both of those will be done during the site planning process and federal permitting process.

"We will try to address residents' concerns, but you can't have a very large piece of property that is privately owned at the interchange of 95 and Dale Boulevard and expect it to remain open space forever," Stewart said. "Its by-right use is mostly high-density housing. If it were me, I [would] rather see a beautiful war museum rather than a sea of townhouses."

But Houston still took issue with the county's lack of communication.

"I understand where they are going with developing that part of the county, but they aren't giving us too much consideration," Houston said. "I think there's some injustice going on in this whole process."

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