James H. Burch, a 40-year old Fairfax land developer and promoter with an unusual resume--one that includes time spent as a seminarian, go-go bar manager and congressional candidate--was ebullient, and rightfully so.
Where all others had failed, Burch succeeded last week in winning zoning needed for a major waterfront development on the Potomac River just below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. His "Bay of the Americas," a $550 million, 440-acre residential, recreational and commercial development on and around an excavated gravel pit known as Smoot Bay, was unanimously approved by the Prince George's County Council just three years after Burch began promoting his idea.
A key ingredient in Burch's success was the man himself, who sensed the psychic need in Prince George's for recognition and exploited it by aggressively working his way into the county's social and political circles.
"Jim is a supersalesman," said George Dunn Jr., president of Heffron Inc., a 63-year old Washington mechanical contracting firm, and a partner with Burch in the Smoot Bay venture.
"He's a very creative guy. His mind's always churning. In one sense, he's refreshing. He's pure at heart, genuine, not a shyster. He believes everything he says. He's hocked his life, his soul for this. He would commit hari-kari if this didn't come off."
Burch was born in Washington and raised in Northern Virginia, where his father had a land development company. For nine years, he studied for the priesthood at the Precious Blood Fathers' seminary outside Dayton, Ohio. After college, he worked in the federal War on Poverty program and as an aide to Virginia Lt. Gov. Henry Howell.
In 1972, Burch ran for the House of Delegates and, with a birch seed taped to his brochures, won by one vote. A recount resulted in a 16,410-to-16,410 tie, and he lost by drawing of lots. Two years later, after a short stint as press secretary to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), he ran for Congress and lost.
Needing a job, Burch then managed a go-go bar on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington for three months. He says he has written a book, so far unpublished, about his experience. "I learned the value of the police emergency number 911," he says.
Burch's father eventually brought him into the family as a full partner, and Burch says they bought large tracts of land and sold off several hundred lots, although they did no building themselves.
At the same time, Burch engaged in other enterprises. He franchised peddle-car distributorships around the country, began a videotape dating service, and started a firm, Omni-Video, that films depositions for court cases.
Burch's resume also includes a presidential run in 1980, when he spent five or six days in New Hampshire promoting employe stock ownership plans. The other candidates did not rush to embrace the issue, he says.
Oddly, Burch is today little known in his home county. He isn't listed on the membership rolls of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Virginia Board of Realtors or the Northern Virginia Builders Association. In Prince George's County, however, he has joined nearly everything in sight.
He now belongs to the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce, the Sons of Italy, the Suburban Maryland International Trade Association and the Oxon Hill Manor Foundation, a non-profit group headed by the brother-in-law of Frank Lucente, a builder who is a partner in the Bay of the Americas venture.
The foundation sponsors programs at the former mansion of Sumner Welles, assistant secretary of state under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lucente's wife is membership director of the organization, which decided not to oppose the Smoot Bay project. That fact has led some members to file a lawsuit against the foundation. Burch spent the night following the County Council vote at a Manor Foundation meeting, instead of out celebrating his victory.
Burch has also become politically active, contributing several hundred dollars to local candidates, mostly incumbents, for county and state office. "You won't buy people off," he said, "but it puts you in touch." Burch said he's attended as many as 25 Prince George's political fundraisers. He has also attended, by his count, about 150 community meetings.
The differences between Prince George's and Fairfax are stark, Burch reflected recently. "In Fairfax, the book of procedures dictates life. They don't care if you go bankrupt, if the project takes five years or five days. In Prince George's, they look more at what is the reality of what you're doing. Does it make sense? They can sense an integrity."
That he's never even built a suburban subdivision doesn't matter a bit, he says, as he proceeds with plans to develop what promises to be one of the largest waterfront projects on the entire East Coast.
"There's always a first project," said Burch.