The Great Falls Citizens' Association once again has gone to battle with the Virginia Department of Highways - this time to preserve two 200-year-old white oak trees in the center of Great Falls. At issue, say the citizens, is not only the fate of the trees but the country atmosphere of the town and Route 93 (Georgetown Pike), one of the oldest roads in Virginia and a state scenic byway.
Caught in the middle is the Great Falls Professional Center Association, a group of investors which plans to build a two-story medical office center at the northeast corner of Route 193 and Walker Road, where the two oak trees stand.
So far the citizens' association has managed to stall the plans until some agreement can be reached with the highway department on a proposal to build a right turn lane on Route 193. The citizens' group does not dispute the need for the turn lane, but is arguing with the highway department over where the lane should be.
George Sommers, spokesman for the citizens' association, said Route 193 - two lanes at the intersection now - is 40 feet wide with an additional 35 feet of service roadway already on the southside of Route 193. According to the citizens groups, the intersection could be widened by moving Route 193 traffic to the service road and using the present westbound lane on Route 193 as the right turn lane. However, the highway department wants to take an additional 20-feet setback on the north, thereby cutting down the two old trees. That proposal is part of larger plans by the department to eventually add a left turn lane at the intersection.
Sommers said the citizens fear that destruction of the trees would set a precedent and would imperil "two truly gigantic red oaks (just down the road) that have been there long before there was a United States.
"What really bugs us is this guy (highway engineer Donald Keith) flatly refuse to explain why our plan can't be done . . . We're just supposed to be good little children and do what we're told."
Keith, resident engineer for Fairfax County, said the highway department "is trying to provide the best facility we can with what we can. People (in Great Falls) have been getting by seemingly very well with the facility they have. But if we don't get that roadway now, one of these days, if and when we need it, we're not going to be able to do it because we're locked in by the development out there."
keith said he was aware that residents in the Walker Road area opposed development there, "but the fact is that it is being developed and we must presume that it will continue in its historic development pattern."
Keith said that in terms of a safe intersection it "is doubtful that thse two threes should remain so close to the roadway." In addition, he said the trees probably will not survive the development and traffic that will be generated. "Trees are a renewable resource," he added.
To complicate the situation, the citizens' association believes the highway department could easily obtain the right-of-way needed on the south side of Route 193 (Keith does not agree), and the highway department believes the north side proposal would be easier to implement since the investors already have agreed to give up the land the department has requested.
Keith said the present service roadway, which the citizen's association has proposed the widening, is still owned by the proprietor of a Shell station on the southwest corner of the intersection. "We can't use private property for public use," he said.
Sommers has countered that Keith's argument is a "subterfuge. We've talked with the owners of the Shell station and they'll make Keith a present of it. As far as they're concerned the highway department captured that land 10 yers ago."
According to Sommers, who says he generally supports better roads in Virginia, Keith is "a miser of asphalt pavement; he collects asphalt pavement the way some people collect jade or the old masters."
Sommers said the citizens' association also was involved in a battle with the highway department and Fairfax County when the Chez Francois restaurant first announced its plan to move to Springvale Road in Great Falls, near the Loudoun County line. Sommers said the planned location was "really nothing more than a country crossroads . . . The highway department (and the county) aruged that they needed 90 feet of right of way (enough for seven and a half 12-feet lanes), They were going to cut down every tree and take half of Francois' parking lot. Now you can lie down there out in the middle of the road for 15 minutes and be perfectly safe . . . "The matter was finally settled with a much less ambitious roadway, he added.
In an effort to settle the Route 193 dispute, the citizens' association has asked the state highway commissioner to schedule a public hearing on the Citizens' plan. Sommers said the commissioner has agreed to study their proposal.
The developers of the medical center are hesitant to say anything about the dispute at this point. Pauline Ross, a real estate agent in Great Falls and a spokesman for the investors, would only say that the investors believe the proposed development "is highly desirable. I can took out my window here and see two gas stations (at that corner) and I'm glad I'm not going to be seeing another one."
Sommers agrees that the citizens' association "is pretty agonized over whether the medical center people will drop the project. We feel very strongly that wed like to see their group make it, but we don't seem to be able to have an adult conversation with the state highway department.