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As the Economy Grows, the Trees Fall

By Glenn Frankel and Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 23, 1997; A01
Jim Burton retired to Aldie, in Loudoun County opposes rapid growth.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

On a clear day from atop the Washington Monument as spring begins to take hold, the metropolitan region still offers the vast, open and green vistas that more than a century ago inspired a visiting diplomat to declare this "a city of magnificent distances."

To the north, the line of trees starts with Rock Creek Park and marches upward virtually without interruption until well past the Mormon Temple, whose spires are a shiny island in a sea of trees. To the west, the Potomac River emerges from a thick forest. To the south and east, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the new Redskins stadium loom against a natural background of trees. Altogether, it's easy to see why several studies rate Washington the greenest metropolitan region in the United States.

But the view from the monument is deceptive. Washington is losing much of its distinctive green space to development at a prodigious rate. Vast tracts of farmland and forests are being swallowed up, plowed under, smoothed out and paved over for sprawling residential subdivisions, jumbo retail stores and shopping malls, with roadways and occasional office parks crammed or sprinkled in between.

How much is going and how much is already gone? The metropolitan region lost 211,062 acres of farmland, barren land, forests and wetlands—the categories of land that experts define collectively as green space—in the booming 1980s, according to a study conducted for The Washington Post by the National Center for Resource Innovations in Rosslyn. That amounts to 7 percent of the region's remaining open space and an area nearly five times the size of the entire District of Columbia.

The future is less green still. Patches that now appear green are committed for development. According to the land-use master plans the counties themselves have approved, the region was projected to lose an additional 309,000 acres from 1990 to 2020. That means Washington is losing an average of 10,300 acres of open space each year—an area nearly four times the size of Rock Creek Park. Put another way, developers are converting 28 acres a day—the equivalent of 21 football fields—to residential, commercial and industrial use.

"The Washington region is heading towards a future of more houses and more people per acre in our neighborhoods, which puts us on a path from which there's no turning back," said Margaret S. Maizel, executive director of the National Center for Resource Innovations. "Once the use of the land is changed and green space disappears, it rarely returns."

There is no firm consensus on whether this growth is good or bad, inevitable or controllable. But all sides agree that the loss of green space is permanently altering not only the region's distinctive look but also the quality and texture of people's lives. Development is bringing more economic opportunities and suburban-style amenities such as shopping malls, multiplexes and discount houses to the region's periphery, but it is also producing higher property taxes, more air and water pollution, greater traffic congestion, more overcrowded schools and an increasingly depleted inner city.

Much of the land is being devoured in large gulps in outer counties whose rural past is rapidly succumbing to a suburban future. Howard, Frederick, Calvert and Charles counties in Maryland together have been projected to lose 144,670 acres—more than 13 acres a day—between 1990 and 2020. Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties in Northern Virginia stand to lose 86,583 acres during the same period.

Although some counties are trying to focus growth where roads, schools, sewers and utilities already exist, the projections for many localities show development leapfrogging to new areas where expensive added services will be required. Counties such as Loudoun have spent years drawing up elaborate master plans designed to channel and concentrate growth and preserve open space but have been quick to revise or even scrap them under pressure from landowners and developers.

The outlying jurisdictions are replicating the experiences Prince George's, Montgomery and Fairfax had in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. That's when the inner counties were transformed not just from rural outposts to suburban population centers but also from bedroom communities to employment and retail focal points that competed with, and eventually vaulted over, the region's urban core.

Those inner counties are still undergoing vast changes. Prince George's, which lost 12,989 acres of open space in the 1980s, is projected to lose an additional 28,723 by 2020—16 percent of its remaining open space. Montgomery is projected to lose 14,135 acres in the same 30-year period despite some of the country's most creative regulations for preserving green space. Fairfax still is adding 20,000 people per year to its population—but because most of its land is already developed, it is projected to lose only 6,379 more acres by 2020.

Open space remains at risk even in the most urban sections of the region. Developers nibble at the edges of Rock Creek Park and at the shores of the Potomac. High land prices have led home builders to construct residential units on virtually every available parcel of open space in Arlington, Alexandria and Bethesda, a process known as "in-fill." And some urban planners would like to see development of environmentally sensitive open areas along the Anacostia River in order to bring new life and jobs to distressed Southeast Washington.

Although there are profound differences between Maryland and Virginia over the role of government and the sanctity of private property—Maryland traditionally has been more comfortable regulating land-use issues, while Virginia has taken a hands-off approach—statistics suggest that market forces and demographics have overcome ideology. About 35 percent of the land in each state's share of the Washington region will be built upon by 2020, a significant change in the amount of green space. In fact, Maryland is projected to undergo more suburban sprawl—a term that describes the spread of detached houses on big lots and commercial strips—than its neighbor to the south.

The projections by NCRI, a nonprofit research outfit that provides geographic information to policymakers, are likely to provoke debate in some localities. Although the figures for 1980 and 1990 are fairly precise, the projections for 2020 are more subjective. County master plans are open to change, and market conditions ultimately will determine how much development occurs. The projections also do not take into account the substantial amounts of open land that developers often preserve in their projects. "It's an overgeneralized depiction of very complicated data," said Jay Langford, a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments official, of the NCRI figures.

Still, what is beyond dispute is the overall trend: Open space is disappearing, and disappearing fast.

"We used to go out Route 50 for a drive in the country," said Madelon Vorbau, 61, who has lived in Annandale since 1974. Now, "it's strip mall, town houses and apartments, one after the other. Pretty soon there won't be any open space between here and Winchester."

National Trend

What is happening to the Washington area reflects a national trend. The loss of open space has sparked a passionate debate, locally and nationally, on the effects of suburban sprawl.

"The measles approach" is what Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) calls it. He recently proposed rewarding counties with state money for roads and schools if they agree to confine growth to a few designated areas. "A shopping center over here, a warehouse over there, and a subdivision of 120 homes over there, That's what's really destroying us," Glendening said in a recent interview.

Those who have benefited from the explosive growth don't see a problem. For the developers, home builders, home buyers, retailers, real estate agents, bankers, highway contractors and state and local officials who have championed development for more than three decades, open space is raw fuel. That fuel powers what John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., Northern Virginia's foremost developer, calls "the highest level of individual prosperity in the country and probably the world." He sees development as a natural process that can't, and shouldn't, be stopped.

"You say 28 acres a day, and my answer is: So what?" Hazel said. "The land is a resource for people to use, and the issue is whether you use it well. . . . Is the goal to save green space so the other guy can look at it? How about job growth? How about the tax base? How about the ability to get to work? How about the ability to find a place for your kid to work?"

Developers such as Hazel have done more than build on the land. They have fundamentally altered the metropolitan region, creating a new world on the edge of the old, resituating and redefining the locus of power and prosperity.

But a coalition of forces has arisen in opposition. Those forces consist not only of preservationists, who contend that open space is a value in and of itself, but also urbanists, environmentalists and ordinary residents. These critics for the most part do not oppose new development, so much as wish to slow it, make it more rational—and less ravenous.

National organizations based in Washington have taken up the cause, joining regional groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Piedmont Environmental Council. A cottage industry of books, conferences and speakers capitalizes on the surge of interest.

"There are times when you literally can go to two or three meetings a night on this subject," said Jane Hunter, a community activist in a rural section of western Montgomery County.

Nonetheless, the loss of open land is not quite the straightforward proposition the numbers suggest. For one thing, open space comes in many forms. There are publicly owned parks and recreational areas, whose futures and boundaries are more or less secure. There are private tracts whose owners are committed either through land-use easements or local ordinances to preserve them. And there are farms and other privately held areas waiting to be rezoned, subdivided and transformed into suburbs.

Most experts agree the Washington area probably has many more trees today than it did 50 years ago. Deer, foxes and raccoons, nature's felons, are roaming suburban neighborhoods again, staging nocturnal assaults on garbage cans and vegetable gardens.

The barren moonscapes that marked rising suburban subdivisions two decades ago are less common today. Developers increasingly see advantages to preserving open vistas and trees as selling points that raise the value of a given parcel. Local jurisdictions are adopting ordinances that mandate open space preservation or give "density bonuses" to builders willing to preserve some of the environmental character of the land.

Disney Co.'s proposal for a 3,000-acre real estate development centered on a history theme park outside Haymarket in Prince William County. Historians, preservationists and environmentalists banded together to oppose the plan, which had strong support from local businesspeople, officials and Gov. George Allen (R). In 1994, after nine months of rancorous debate, Disney surprised both sides by withdrawing.

Opponents stopped Disney, but they cannot preserve the open space that Disney planned to build on. The trees and farmland for years were planned for residential development, and that zoning is destiny. For-sale signs dot the property.

Pierce Homer, a Prince William assistant county executive, said the tract would wind up as "another Centreville"—a collection of sprawling suburban subdivisions in nearby Fairfax. "In the real world, the choice isn't between Disney and open space but between Disney and Centreville," Homer said.

Ambiguous Role

The role of local governments in preserving open space and encouraging a vigorous economy is confused and ambiguous.

The region is divided into three major jurisdictions—Maryland, Virginia and the District—whose characters, ideologies and approaches to land-use issues are fundamentally different. It is further balkanized into at least 15 local jurisdictions that see themselves as competing with each other and with the city they surround for jobs, office space, retail outlets and high-tech firms. Reasonably priced open space is one of the principal commodities a locality can offer to lure development.

Control over land traditionally has meant not only money but political power. Glendening is a product of a Democratic political machine in Prince George's run by land speculators, developers and their lawyers, and fueled by land sales and real estate development. The enormous profits made off land in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun beginning in the 1960s became the central source of wealth and power in Virginia's state elections, sounding the death knell for the once-dominant Byrd machine, which ruled the state for nearly 40 years, and its heirs in Richmond.

That power reasserts itself whenever the development lobby comes under fire. When the Fairfax Board of Supervisors sought to reduce the legally allowable density on more than 14,000 acres across the county, developers and business leaders persuaded the General Assembly to overturn the restrictions in a bill that passed by a wide margin. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D), who received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Northern Virginia development interests, signed the bill into law.

Critics contend that in a rush to attract growth, local governments have bitten off far more than they can chew.

"Development happens two ways," said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, one of the Disney project's main opponents. "One is in small, incremental pieces of two or three units, the kind that occurs naturally in a community." The other happens through " large economic entities, partnerships and corporations that come in from outside the area, accumulate large acreages and make huge demands for resources that local governments are not capable of handling. These projects never get half-enough scrutiny, and as a result we end up with a lot of bad decision-making."

Local officials contend they are merely responding to imperatives laid down by the public. Although interest groups arise to press for development in various forms, open space is an orphan. "Schools, roads, libraries, parks, affordable housing—all of these have a constituency," Homer said. Preservationists may come out against individual projects, but in overall terms, Homer said, " green space has no constituency."

But many residents feel powerless to affect growth. "We're always playing catch-up," said Pat Inman, who moved to the Ashburn section of Loudoun three years ago with her family. "As a citizen, I feel that the local government process tries to wear you down. By the time you read about something in the newspaper, it's usually too late to stop it."

Federal Control

As a federal city, Washington has congressionally mandated institutions, largely unfettered by local politics, that stand as independent guardians of its parks and open space.

The National Park Service controls nearly 50,000 acres in the region. John Parsons, a landscape architect who oversees land-use issues for the Park Service, has been a behind-the-scenes player in some of the most important conflicts over open land during the last three decades. He and his agency helped stymie three schemes for major development near the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Prince William, and they have played an important role in preserving open land on both shores of the Potomac.
Cascades development, along Route 7 near 28 in Loudoun County.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

But federal ownership of land is no guarantee of preservation. When Congress ordered the Army to close a chunk of Fort George G. Meade in Maryland in the late 1980s, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed selling 3,000 acres of prime open space to a developer for 6,500 residential units, a hotel and 7.8 million square feet of office space. Only the intervention of two influential congressmen, Democrats Steny H. Hoyer and Tom McMillen, led to a compromise that preserved most of the space while allowing the sale of 1,400 acres for development.

Washington is one of the world's few truly planned cities. Pierre L'Enfant laid out its Parisian-style radials and boulevards and vast tracts of green space in 1791. More than a century later, the congressionally mandated McMillan Commission opened up and enhanced the city's "Monumental Core," centered at the Mall, and proposed an extensive network of federal parks that now dot the region. "Whatever of natural beauty is to be preserved . . . must be provided for during the next few years or it will be forever too late," the commission declared in 1901.

After its report, Congress established the Commission of Fine Arts to oversee planning and architectural changes in the city. The commission, along with the Park Service, has prevented developers from encroaching on federally protected land. "You can't save every tree, but we take this job very seriously," said Charles H. Atherton, the commission's general secretary.

But nothing has had more impact on the development of modern Washington than another federally funded project: the Capital Beltway. Completed in 1964, the 66-mile-long double ribbon of pavement was designed primarily to allow East Coast motorists to bypass the city. But it also became a magnet for a new kind of quasi-urban growth: high-rise, urban-style office and retail centers that sprouted on the periphery. These are places such as Tysons Corner and Merrifield in Fairfax, White Flint in Montgomery and Laurel in Prince George's. Arising at a period of massive increases in the federal budget, the metropolitan region and the bureaucracy grew at peak rates together.

Many suburban population centers took advantage of the Beltway—Montgomery and Prince George's both underwent rapid annual growth. But none grew quite as large or as quickly as Fairfax. Its population, which has now reached 900,000, surged past the District's in the 1990 Census, and its job total has more than doubled over the last two decades. Powered by Fairfax's explosive growth and by development in neighboring Loudoun and Prince William, the '90s are the decade in which Northern Virginia is overtaking Maryland in total employment and asserting economic dominance over the region.

Growth has come at a high price. Fairfax calculates it now needs $1 billion for new schools, libraries, fire stations and other buildings for its burgeoning population over the next five years but is $300 million short of revenue to pay for them.

The price in open space also has been high. The National Forest Service estimates Fairfax lost 25 percent, or 30,000 acres, of its forest land to development from 1976 to 1992. A recent study for Virginia Commonwealth University projects that Fairfax and Prince William could be devoid of farmland by 2020.

In a report released last week, the American Farmland Trust ranks the northern Piedmont area—centered in this region—as the second most threatened farming region in the country after California's Central Valley. Many pressures eat away at agriculture here, but the main one has been raw economics: once the price of land hit $3,000 an acre, it simply made more sense to many farmers to subdivide rather than sow. Maizel, of the National Center for Resources Innovations, said her group's green-space analysis shows that large farming operations probably will cease to exist in this region within the next two decades.

"While some farmers can make the transition to a higher value operation, such as a pick-your-own strawberries on smaller acreage, most farmers simply cannot," she said.

Negative Reaction

Some members of the growth lobby fear that Washington's time has come and gone. They worry that the region's refusal to embrace mega-projects such as Disney, the American Dream mall in Silver Spring and a new major league baseball stadium means growth and progress will inevitably pass the region by for Atlanta, Charlotte or Houston. The negative reaction to growth means "sooner or later people are gonna quit taking a look at us," said Kenneth Thompson, a Prince William real estate developer.

Til Hazel and the development forces are keen to recharge the region's momentum by building a ring of eastern and western highway bypasses. They contend that the roadways are critical to easing congestion over the next 25 years, when, estimates by the Council of Governments show, traffic in the region will increase by 70 percent. The roads could be magnets for new development, more cities at the fringe and further suburban sprawl. Critics contend they would be another shattering blow to the inner city.

But there are alternatives. One is a proposal by the Park Service's Parsons for a modified "Green Belt" that would preserve the current ring of open space that stretches from the rural eastern end of Prince George's to Fort Meade, the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, to the agricultural preserve in Montgomery, to the farmlands of western Loudoun and Prince William Forest Park and Quantico. Parsons envisages a 10-mile-wide protective strip similar to the greenway that surrounds London.

Meanwhile, the National Capital Planning Commission has proposed extending the legacy of L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission. The planning commission wants to dismantle the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and turn North and South Capitol Street into a second "civic gateway" with some of the same sweeping grandeur as the Mall. The commission also wants to reclaim the Potomac's riverfront to create a continuous band of open space from Georgetown to the National Arboretum.

It's not too late both to preserve the character of the region and revive the urban core, commission members and supporters contend. Washington, Alexandria and Arlington together still boast more jobs and office space than any suburb. The land surrounding Occoquan Reservoir in Fairfax and Prince William has been rezoned to maintain water quality by decreasing the intensity of development. Farmland still dominates western Loudoun and western Montgomery. The fate of these open spaces, experts say, are public policy decisions in which voters as well as landowners can participate.

"You can't expect politicians, planners or public officials or anybody else to get out front on these issues," said Edward Risse, a Fairfax-based planning consultant who has worked for developers. "This is a democracy, and ordinary citizens will have to get out front and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. We want to maintain this the way it is.' That's what it will take."

© 1997 The Washington Post Company

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