James H. Burch, a 40-year-old Fairfax County land developer and promoter with an unusual resume 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 recently in obtaining the 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 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., 63, a 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," Dunn said. "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 hara-kiri 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 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 He says he has written a book, so far unpublished, about his experience.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 911"--the police emergency number, he says.
Burch's father eventually brought him into the family as a full partner, and Burch said 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 today is little known in his home county. He is not 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 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 nonprofit 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 President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lucente's wife is membership director of the organization, which decided not to oppose the Smoot Bay project. That has led some members to file a lawsuit against the foundation. Burch spent the night after the County Council vote at a Manor Foundation meeting, instead of out celebrating his victory.
Burch also has 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 has attended as many as 25 Prince George's political fund-raisers. He also has 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," he said. "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 has never even built a suburban subdivision does not matter a bit, he says, as he proceeds with plans to develop what promises to be one of the largest waterfront projects on the East Coast.
"There's always a first project," Burch said. CAPTION: Picture 1, Fairfax developer James H. Burch looks over the area where his $55 million "Bay of the Americas" would erect town houses, hotels and marinas; Picture 2, Developer James H. Burch with his plans for "Bay of the Americas." Photos by Bill Snead--The Washington Post