Metrorail's board of directors agreed yesterday to sell land at the Vienna station for a mini-city of homes, offices and stores, moving forward a project at the center of Fairfax County's debate over growth.
The long-negotiated $6.5 million sale will transfer 3.75 acres south of the station to Pulte Homes, the developer of MetroWest. But the string bean-shaped property is a critical link between the station and 56 acres where Pulte is seeking county approval for 13 residential, retail and office towers, including 2,250 homes. Without the land, Pulte has said, buildings would have to be shifted too far from the station, discouraging commuters from walking to shops and offices and forcing them into their cars.
MetroWest, which would be one of the densest developments in Fairfax, has come to symbolize the county's effort to concentrate homes, offices and shops around Metro stations. Called "smart growth" by its supporters, the planning philosophy has also drawn fierce opposition from neighbors who never dreamed anything so urban would rise near their leafy subdivisions.
The sale was held up for months by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va), who threatened to withdraw federal transit funding if it went through. Davis and opponents saw the delay as leverage to push county supervisors to demand that Pulte scale back the project, which is scheduled for a vote by the county board early next year.
The Metro board prepared to vote on the land sale last month. But under pressure from Davis, Chairman T. Dana Kauffman postponed action until yesterday so that Metro could hold an unusual public hearing on the sale.
Dozens of people, from neighbors to business leaders to members of environmental groups, weighed in on both sides at Oakton High School on Nov. 1.
Kauffman, also a Fairfax County supervisor, said the decision to sell came down to the sale's windfall for Metro and Pulte's commitment to make $17 million in improvements at the station, including a wider access road.
"Every now and then you come down to an issue of people having to agree to disagree," he said before the unanimous vote.
"We have delayed final action . . . to ensure that questions raised by everyone from neighbors to Congress could be addressed."
Concerns have included whether MetroWest's density would overwhelm nearby roads with cars, even if some workers and residents ride trains and buses.
As for the trains, some have asked how the already-strained Orange line could handle any increase in ridership.
Before yesterday's vote, a handful of opponents pleaded with Metro to lease the property rather than sell it.
"At least you might be able to exert some leverage on the developer, who has shown little appetite for listening to citizens thus far," said Angela Elliott, whose husband, Will, is a founder of FairGrowth, a group seeking fewer homes in MetroWest.
"Once [developers] develop the area, they're gone and don't live with the consequences" said Jane Seeman, mayor of Vienna, where the town council has opposed the density in MetroWest.
Kauffman (D-Lee) said it would unrealistic for Pulte to build condominiums on leased land. He also said that a planned increase in rail cars will add a third more capacity at Vienna.
The Vienna land sale comes as other neighborhoods next to Metro stations in the District and Maryland confront plans for dense development.
Local leaders from Fairfax to Takoma Park say transit-oriented projects will get people out of their cars and reduce gridlock as they meet a strong demand for new homes.
But opponents complain of a lack of public input in decisions they say are likely to create more traffic, not less.
'The biggest traffic generators are scattered single-use developments that give workers no choice but to drive," Laura Olsen, assistant director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, told Metro officials.
Land the transit agency owns "is a critical part of ensuring well-designed, true transit-oriented development," she said. The coalition supports MetroWest and other pedestrian-friendly "smart-growth" projects.
Jon Lindgren, Pulte's land acquisitions manager said Metro's sliver of land is essential for the project. "The closer you can get density to Metro the better," he said.
"This gives us the opportunity to create the sense of place we've been talking about."
The next step in MetroWest will come next year when the developer's rezoning application goes before the county board.
Fairfax changed its land-use plan last year to allow high-density development at the Vienna station, but the details, including the density, are being negotiated.
Kauffman and Metro board member Catherine M. Hudgins, also a Fairfax supervisor, stressed that the land sale was separate from a rezoning case that will be up to the county.
"This is not the end of the discussion we will have" on MetroWest, Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said.
Also yesterday, the Metro board finally approved a plan to test ways to increase capacity and efficiency on rail cars with fewer seats, additional handrails and more overhead handles.