Metro's board of directors voted yesterday to hold a public hearing on the sale of land it owns to the developers of a controversial project at the Vienna Metro station, prompting Rep. Thomas M. Davis III to withdraw his threat to withhold federal transit funding.
Before the $1.5 billion spending bill for Metro passed a House committee yesterday, Davis (R-Va.) softened language that would have prevented the agency from selling or leasing 3.75 acres it owns at the Vienna station. Developer Pulte Homes had been negotiating with Metro to buy the land, saying it would be a critical link between the station and its 56-acre MetroWest project, where 13 residential, retail and office towers would rise in a transit-oriented development that Fairfax officials are pushing.
The congressman, sensing fierce neighborhood opposition to the project's size, intervened with a threat that he hoped would force the county Board of Supervisors to scale back the 2,250 planned homes and, he said, solicit more community views.
The Metro board was scheduled to vote on the long-negotiated $6.5 million sale, normally a routine transaction, yesterday morning. But under heavy pressure from neighborhood activists and Davis, board Chairman T. Dana Kauffman, who is also a Fairfax supervisor, postponed the vote until next month and scheduled a Metro public hearing on the sale and the project for Nov. 1.
By the time the funding bill sailed through Davis's House Committee on Government Reform hours later, the congressman had amended the Vienna language to require that Metro hold a community meeting, study how parking and traffic will be addressed and analyze the costs and benefits of any sale.
"The one thing the citizens have on their side are the facts and public opinion," Davis said. "The playing field has been leveled for the citizens." He said that even if the land sale eventually is approved, he hopes his intervention will force the county to reduce the number of homes in MetroWest.
The Vienna language was one of two significant changes to the bill before it heads to the House floor for a vote. Lawmakers also required that Metro expand its 12-member governing board to include four new federal representatives, one of whom would represent riders. The legislation asks Congress for a major new commitment to Metro to relieve crowding and keep the system in good repair, but only if the Washington region creates a dedicated source of money for Metro.
The agency also must agree to hire an inspector general to track how it is managed and spends money. And the bill sets conditions on two other land sales. The pending deals at the Largo and Takoma Park stations also would require Metro to consult more with local leaders and the community.
The community around the proposed MetroWest project has been the center of a chess game between the Metro board, Davis and the county board as tensions have built between the congressman and county board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). Connolly, a supporter of the kind of "smart growth" around public transit that MetroWest would represent, has denounced Davis for stepping into a local land-use issue.
Pulte officials have said they could still build the project without the Metro land by shifting buildings off the property. But Connolly and his fellow county board members argue that would place buildings too far from the station. Instead of walking to shops and offices, people would be pushed back into the cars the development is designed to discourage.
"This is a choice for Fairfax between environmentally smart growth and development or the sprawl-induced growth and development we've had in the past," Connolly said last night.
He said he continues to "regret the congressman's interference in local land use." But he said he believes the changes Davis made to the language in the bill "opens the door for some common ground." For example, Connolly said his board would consider more retail space and housing for retirees in MetroWest.
Before scheduling the public hearing on the land sale, Kauffman said he believed it would be "inherently dumb not to include the Metro land" in the project.
But he said he scheduled the Nov. 1 hearing "as a courtesy to the people in the community" whose views on the land sale have not been heard.
Will Elliott, a founder of FairGrowth, a group seeking fewer homes in MetroWest, called the decision to hold a hearing on the land sale a "very good step."
It was apparent yesterday that Kauffman did not have the votes to approve the land sale. "Sometimes you can claim victory and end up with more of a problem," he said, referring to Davis's role in the case.
Of the bill's requirement that one federal member of Metro's board be a rider, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, "I want one member whose sole responsibility and obligation is to the riders and is a regular user of the system."
Van Hollen inserted that requirement into the bill, he said, because he was convinced of the need after The Washington Post reported last year that a majority of Metro directors, who set policy for the region's subway and bus system, had never ridden a Metrobus or couldn't recall the last time they had. Only one was a daily passenger on a bus or train.
Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this story.