There's a new version of Monopoly being played on the streets of Northern Virginia these days -- with real cash, real property and real people.
In Arlington, it involves lucrative buy-outs of multiple players whose lucky roll of the dice years ago landed them on the right blocks -- the ones near Metro subway stops where the county is permitting intensive redevelopment.
The rules are seemingly simple: Several neighbors agree to pool their properties to get a land package big enough for high-density development and then sell it to a builder for double or triple the assessed values.
But the increasingly popular high-stakes game, which some call "neighborhood busting," has alarmed officials in Arlington and Fairfax counties. They view it as a threat to the stability of long-established neighborhoods when residents pressure them for changes in zoning and land-use designations that could make the properties even more valuable.
"You've got a let's-make-a-buck wildfire spreading that we're trying to discourage and contain," said Arlington County Board member Albert C. Eisenberg.
In response, the board unanimously adopted his resolution last week warning county residents that it would not change zoning and land-use designations willy-nilly to suit the get-rich-quick dreams of some residents at the expense of neighborhood stability.
"We needed to tell some of these fragile neighborhoods," Eisenberg said, "that they should have no fears the board will give the neighborhood away from under them for some type of adverse development."
In Fairfax County, where fewer communities are exploring similar consolidations, county board Chairman John F. Herrity had similar warnings, especially for a group of 30 homeowners trying to sell their Random Hills lots near the Fair Oaks Mall.
"I have a great deal of admiration for people who are trying to make a buck," Herrity said. "But it's a question of whether we're going to let them do it or not."
Changes in the county's comprehensive plan are hard to come by, he said, and they "would require more necessity than somebody's making a buck -- a public necessity."
Many of the concerns of local officials can be traced to a chain reaction of events following the decision of 22 homeowners in Arlington's Courtlands neighborhood near the Court House Metro stop to sell their land to a high-rise builder for about $10 million, nearly triple the properties' assessed values.
"It's like winning the lottery," said Jeffrey Zinn, who is president of the Courtlands Civic Association but did not join in the consolidation. "You win the fortune of your life that you were never entitled to -- if you can convince the government to go along."
The developer, the Courchevel Corp. of Bethesda, also got a big break: Instead of entering a lengthy process of piecemeal purchases, the firm got a ready-made land package for a $125 million residential complex that the County Board narrowly approved in January.
Now that a second Courtlands consolidation is pending, those who chose to remain are unhappy about the constant march of real estate agents to their doors and the skyscrapers that may replace the bungalows and rose gardens.
"The projects which occur as a result of these consolidations can be harmful to neighborhoods," Zinn said. Besides the physical changes, these efforts can engender hard feelings among longtime friends.
People who want to sell and who encounter opposition to land-use changes from their neighbors, he said, "feel stabbed in the back by the opposition. And the other side feels they can't trust the would-be sellers because they'll try it again. The residuals can be very bad interpersonal feelings. People start getting negative feelings about the neighborhood and, you begin to see deterioriation."
The Courtlands neighbors were able to strike the deal only because the county long ago agreed that the area was an appropriate candidate for large-scale redevelopment in view of its proximity to the subway. Since then, at least five other neighborhoods in Arlington alone have begun talks with developers in hopes of repeating the Courtlands coup.
But, unlike Courtlands, many of those neighborhoods are in areas -- such as Lyon Park and East Falls Church -- where county policies discourage dense developments in an effort to preserve residential neighborhoods. Citing its policies, the board again last week said it will not cave in to pressure for changes that would be incompatible with community land-use goals in neighborhoods.
"I thought, 'Thank goodness the board finally took a position like that,' " said Ashton Heights resident Catherine DeScisciolo, one of many civic activists who welcomed the board's statement.
"I'm pleased that the board thinks it's possible" to stop such consolidations, said Susan Wilder, president of the Stonewall Jackson Civic Association, where there are at least two attempted consolidations in the works. One, in the preliminary stages, is in a neighborhood south of Wilson Boulevard, near the new Ballston Common Shopping Center.
The other involves a pooling of five acres owned by 36 persons in the Avon Park and Jordan Manor subdivisions just outside the rapidly redeveloping Ballston area. There, the County Board's resolution has sparked some anger.
It is a single-family neighborhood that the county has said could be redeveloped into nothing more than town houses because it is needed as a buffer zone between the single-family houses on one side and high-rises going up on the other. Many of the back yards there abut the parking lot of nine-story Chamber of Commerce building.
"You'd get the idea we have whooping cranes and golden eagles here, and trout jumping out of streams," said Eric Rodenhauser, an Avon Park resident who favors the consolidation. "We're not sitting on wetlands or Indian burial grounds. This is not a pristine neighborhood; we're caught in the middle of a building boom here."
"We're citizens here, too, eating dust and lead and watching the rats run up and down the street because of all the construction around here," he added. "We want to consolidate so a developer can build something nice here that will benefit everyone and still be within the master land use plan."
He said many neighbors favor "mid-rises" instead of high-rises, tapering down to town houses -- a plan that they say would not harm the remaining property owners.
It is a plan also advanced by Suzanne Paciulli, a vice president at Town & Country Realty. Paciulli said she is representing the consolidation efforts of the Avon Park and Jordan Manor owners in Arlington and the 69 owners of 32 acres in the Fairlee subdivision near Fairfax County's Vienna Metro stop.
She said she has turned down two other groups in Arlington and three in Fairfax that were seeking consolidations, saying that they unrealistically expected to persuade their governments to grant changes inconsistent with local land-use policies.
"The problems come with neighborhoods which are remotely removed from development, but feel if they can band together they can persuade the county" to give their properties higher densities, she said.
"But unless that neighborhood is already impacted, no government is going to make a change," she said. "Neighborhoods have to take a close look at their situation . . . . The mere idea that a whole neighborhood wants to leave doesn't mean it's a good idea or that the board is going to" facilitate it.
"The county, after all, has to have a certain amount of integrity in its planning process," she said. "You have to be realistic about that."