About 200 Vienna-area residents attended a forum held by Metro officials last night on a land sale at the Vienna station that has swept a congressman, state and Fairfax leaders and hundreds of homeowners into one of the region's most heated debates about growth.
The hearing at Oakton High School in Vienna concerned 3.75 acres Metro owns at the station and is negotiating to sell to developer Pulte Homes. The land is a critical link between the station and a mixed-use development that Pulte hopes to build on 56 acres to the south: 13 residential, retail and office towers called MetroWest.
Facing fierce neighborhood opposition to the project and a threat from Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) to withhold federal transit funding, Metro's board of directors scheduled the forum on the land sale last month. Davis then withdrew his threat.
Metro board Chairman T. Dana Kauffman, who is also a Democratic Fairfax supervisor from Lee, said the purpose of the hearing was to allow the public to weigh in on the sale.
But the high attendance represented another turn in the long-running battle over how Fairfax should grow now that most of its open land is gone.
The 2,250 condominiums and townhouses in MetroWest would make up one of the county's densest developments, a shift in planning that calls for concentrating homes and shops near Metro stops. Supporters call this type of design "smart growth" and say it is the best way to get people out of their cars as the county continues to grow.
But critics of the project, whose testimony was alternated with supporters' remarks, said MetroWest would bring too many cars to a congested neighborhood and too many train riders to a crowded rail line.
"The premise that Metro is a silver bullet that will negate the effects of thousands of new cars on surrounding streets" is misguided, said Laurie Cole, a Vienna Town Council member.
"We ourselves are for high density at the Metro, but we don't think this particular development is true smart growth," said Will Elliott, a founder of FairGrowth, a residents group pushing for fewer homes in MetroWest.
The Metro board is scheduled to vote on the Vienna land sale later this month. But the fate of MetroWest is in the hands of the County Board of Supervisors, which is expected to vote early next year on Pulte's proposal to rezone its 56-acre plot. The board has approved a change to the county's land-use plan to allow high-density development at the station, and supervisors, led by Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), have thrown their support behind transit-oriented development.
Among the project's supporters last night were some homeowners groups, which said new shops would be a boon to the neighborhood, and business leaders.
"The question facing this community is whether we continue to plan and grow . . . confined by an aging view of how suburbs develop," said William Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. "Or will this county finally plan smart so that it can grow smart?"
Davis intervened in the issue in the spring by adding language blocking the sale to a $1.5 billion Metro funding bill. Last night, he called on supervisors to approve a less dense MetroWest. But he said his real concern with the project is that it would add thousands of new commuters to the Orange Line, which already is at capacity.
"In my view, the [Metro] board . . . should advocate decreasing the density of MetroWest," Davis said.
Pulte officials have said they could still push ahead with their project without the Metro land by reconfiguring the design to move some of the office and retail space further from the station.
Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports the proposed density in MetroWest, said that slicing out Metro's land would be devastating to the project because fewer people would be inclined to walk to shops and offices. Pulte also has pledged to make millions of dollars in improvements at the station if the $6.5 million land sale goes through.
"You would end up with no community amenities," Schwartz said before the meeting. "We think the higher density will offer many community benefits in terms of walkability and retail access to Metro."