For years, the Lorton prison complex has stood as a symbol of fear and official neglect for residents in the southeastern corner of Fairfax County.
Frequent prisoner escapes, fueled by what is acknowledged to have been lax security and crowding at the sprawling District-run facility, have alarmed nearby homeowners and provided the basis for some of the angriest complaints registered in the offices of county officials.
On Friday, District officials announced that they will suspend without pay three D.C. corrections officials for failing to notify superiors and Fairfax officials during the most recent incident at Lorton -- a Sept. 23 riot that ended in the shotgun shootings of 13 inmates.
Despite the severity of the problem, John T. (Til) Hazel, one of the most prominent developers in Northern Virginia, is planning to build still another subdivision -- with at least 320 new homes -- on property just hundreds of yards from the prison.
With most of the remainder of the county developed, builders are eyeing land that not too many years ago was viewed as undesirable. "There just isn't a lot of room left" for residential development, according to Fairfax County Supervisor T. Farrell Egge (R-Mount Vernon). "The population is pushing outward, and this the Lorton area is the edge of that movement."
Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale) labeled Hazel's proposed development as "just plain crazy" and said she would oppose it. "The last place in the world we ought to increase density is down by the Lorton prison."
Tomorrow, the Lorton issue is likely to be a hotly debated topic as the Board of Supervisors considers Hazel's request to revise the county's comprehensive plan to allow him to build at greater densities on a 256-acre site near Lorton. Hazel, who is part owner of another 250 acres in the same area, has promised in return to donate a 13-acre, $800,000 site to the county for a much-needed elementary school and to build a sewer line through the area.
Hazel, who has clashed with Moore on a number of occasions, characterized the argument that the development should be blocked because of its proximity to Lorton as a "red herring."
"What are you going to do, act like Lorton's not there?" Hazel said. "The areas around it are already settled."
Residents in the southern part of Fairfax County, primarily those in the Newington Forest subdivision, have long complained about the prison, which has been the scene of numerous breakouts.
A September 1984 study concluded that the prison was beset by lax security, making it "vulnerable to attack and takeover" by inmates who often appear to be "running the place."
County officials have clashed re- peatedly with D.C. Mayor Marion Barry over the operation of the facility, with Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity being one of its most outspoken critics. In the past Herrity has described conditions at the prison as chaotic and has called for investigations of numerous incidents at the reformatory.
But Herrity declined to comment Friday on the concerns raised about approving another housing development near Lorton.
Robert F. Lundy, a Lorton area resident who has helped lead the fight against rezoning the Silverbrook area, said county officials will complain about Lorton as long as their criticism does not get in the way of builders.
"The people making the loudest noise about the problem at Lorton appear to be the ones behind this Silverbrook plan, which will put people smack up against the prison," Lundy said.
In all, the proposed master plan change that would allow Hazel to develop the Silverbrook area would encompass a 930-acre tract bordered by Silverbrook, Ox and Hooes roads.
Part of the site is directly across from the reformatory's western boundary, which runs along Hooes Road.
The zoning change has the support of Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert, the county Planning Commission and the supervisors representing the area, which straddles the Springfield and Mount Vernon districts. And unless the political mood shifts before the public hearing tomorrow afternoon, construction likely will be under way soon.
"I see no problem with it," Lambert said. "People have been moving around Lorton for as long as it's been there."
"Lorton's not leaving anytime real soon, and we've got to provide housing accommodations," said Egge, who represents Mount Vernon.
Egge said he and other county officials continue to hope that the entire prison facility -- or at least part of it -- will be moved out of the county. But in the meantime, he said, the need for housing in a county whose land base is rapidly declining remains a top priority.
County officials suggested the proposed change at about the time that Hazel-Peterson Cos., a firm headed by Hazel, requested the zoning change that would permit residential construction on 256 acres of the tract.
In addition to the prison issue, the development has raised environmental concerns. The Giles Run watershed runs through the property, which is described in a county planning report as "environmentally sensitive." The developers have said they will design a project that keeps houses a safe distance from the woods and streams that, according to the report, comprise about 20 percent of the 930-acre parcel.
The plan has been embraced by many residents in the Lorton area because it would assure them of a much-needed school. Modular classrooms are in use at several of the elementary schools now, and projections call for a worsening of the crowding situation.
"We are in desperate need for schools in that area," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell of Springfield. "We cannot legally stop all development there, and this would save our school system some $800,000."
McConnell said she is "very positive" about the project and has detected only "mild opposition" to it from residents in that area.
"We don't care about the development. We just want the school as soon as we can get it," said Jeffrey N. Silverstein, first vice president of the Cherry Run Parent-Teachers Association.
The Fairfax County school system owns one other site, which was donated by another developer, about three miles north of the parcel to be donated by Hazel. That has fueled a charge by some, including Moore, that supporters of the zoning change are using the school as an excuse for the building plans.
"They already have a site," Moore said, referring to the school board. "I'm not sure the school board and staff are united on this."
"It's my understanding that there are several other opportunities for a site" to build a new school," said Laura T. McDowall, the School Board member representing the Annandale district.
"It disturbs me that the school is being used as a reason for that development."
McDowall contended that building the new housing development will increase the need for classroom space in the Lorton area.