The Fairfax County Park Authority approved last night a controversial land swap near Fair Oaks Mall with developer John T. (Til) Hazel -- a deal that its critics say could allow him to make millions if the land is rezoned.
By a vote of 8 to 2, the authority approved a plan that would give Hazel's development firm, Hazel Peterson Companies, a 36-acre park now owned by the authority. It lies east of Stringfellow Road adjoining the 620-acre Fair Lakes development, which Hazel Peterson already owns.
In return, Hazel Peterson would give the park authority 44 acres of parkland across the street on the west side of Stringfellow Road plus $1 million worth of much-needed park and recreation facilities for the site.
The deal now goes to the Fairfax County Planning Commission, where it is expected to gain easy approval.
Park authority officials have hailed the swap as the only way to construct a well-equipped park quickly in that area of the county. Citizens groups as well as the supervisor who represents the area, James M. Scott (D-Providence), are eager for the new soccer and baseball fields and have enthusiastically embraced the proposal.
Scott has said that residents in the area "desperately need" the additional athletic facilities.
Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale) has been a vocal opponent of the deal, contending that if Hazel manages to get rezoning for the land he would receive, from a residential category to one permitting commercial uses such as office buildings, it could more than triple the land's value and render the swap inequitable.
"The park authority is making money for Mr. Hazel, but not for the people," Moore said in a telephone interview after last night's vote.
Scott, also reached by phone, said he refused to take into account future land use decisions by the county Board of Supervisors affecting the value of Hazel's land; the board controls such matters.
"It seems to me to be a fair deal, and it will get a park facility built quicker and cheaper than it could be provided otherwise," he said.
In July, a move by Moore opposing the land swap received no support from her colleagues on the board. Although the park authority is officially independent, the county board could exercise influence over the authority, officials say.
Scott said he opposed a zoning change for the land Hazel would receive, but he added: "This deal has to stand on its own. There's been no plan change that I know of."
Park officials, apparently prompted by Moore's criticism and the public reaction to it, in July went back to Hazel Peterson and tried to renegotiate the deal.
The firm's response was to withdraw its offer, according to Ted Canterbury, senior vice president of Hazel Peterson.
Park officials wanted the firm to guarantee that it would build all the facilities mentioned in its agreement with the authority, including roads, trails, parking spaces, playing fields, lights and restrooms.
Hazel Peterson officials refused, sticking to their original offer to build $1 million in facilities at cost, regardless of how far the money would go.
Hazel Peterson officials said they do not yet have specific plans for a rezoning request.