South county residents are incensed by the transparent theatrical act by Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) and his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors at a recent hearing on Laurel Hill.
The hearing dealt with a proposal to nominate virtually the entire former Lorton prison complex to the National Register of Historic Places. An overwhelming majority of area residents had called upon county supervisors to defer consideration of the nomination.
The South County Federation, made up of homeowners associations from Fairfax Station to Mason Neck, voted in favor of deferral. The Laurel Hill, Barrington and Crosspointe homeowners associations voted unanimously in favor of postponing consideration at least until the responses to the county's request for proposals on development/reuse of the site had been received and an impartial evaluation of the options completed. Even the Laurel Hill project citizens oversight committee -- the very body established by the supervisors to coordinate reuse activities and make recommendations to the county government -- voted to recommend deferring consideration of the nomination until the proposals from industry had been analyzed.
Proponents of deferring consideration of the nomination pointed out that placement on the National Register could foreclose lucrative federal and state rehabilitation tax credits.
There was no clear or compelling rationale for rushing the nomination in light of the uncertainties. Moreover, no one has yet to describe the methodology that was used to make the determination that hundreds of acres and almost 200 structures, including sheds, fuel tanks and chain-link fences, some of them dating only from the 1950s, ought to be given a blanket nomination to the National Register.
In the face of such unified local support for postponement, Mr. Hyland introduced a motion to separate the prison workhouse site, which is the centerpiece of plans by the Lorton Arts Foundation for a Torpedo Factory-like arts center, from the rest of the package and to defer consideration of nominating the latter. The motion failed to receive a second and died. Another supervisor then moved to endorse the nomination of the entire site, and that motion passed with only Mr. Hyland dissenting.
As county government watchers know, however, board meetings are largely scripted events, with all of the positions worked out in advance. Moreover, a supervisor wields enormous influence on land-use issues (indeed, on most issues) within his or her district. To suggest that none of Mr. Hyland's colleagues was willing even to second a motion made by him concerning a matter in his district is to strain the bounds of belief. The absence of a second also meant that none of the supervisors had to vote on the question of deferring consideration of the nomination. If Mr. Hyland truly had wanted the nomination to be deferred, it would have been deferred.
Even more surprising -- and potentially more harmful -- than this theatrical display was the surprise motion introduced by Mr. Hyland on behalf of board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) and himself. Mr. Hyland's motion called for the board to ask the county school system to sell the old Lorton school as surplus property and to allocate the proceeds of the sale to accelerating the construction of the badly needed south county middle school.
As part of the deal, the school system's transportation office and its school bus parking location would move to a new facility to be built on the former prison site. Despite the rosy glow that this initiative appears to have, even a little scrutiny reveals it to be both lacking in substance and injurious to the interests of the residents it is allegedly intended to serve. The supervisors can only make recommendations on what to do with school property or on how any sale proceeds should be allocated; the School Board makes the final decisions. In addition, to date, the school system has indicated that any proceeds from such sales of surplus property will be put into the budget for funding planned capital improvements. So even if the property sale occurred as suggested by the supervisors, the middle school's construction might not be accelerated at all.
Still more alarming is the notion that the Laurel Hill site, supposed to be transformed into a world-class asset, could become the home of a fleet of school buses. If the Board of Supervisors is prepared to do that, area residents wonder, what might come next? Sand trucks and snowplows? A facility to service and refuel all those vehicles? A dog pound? A halfway house situated next to the new secondary school? South county residents are baffled as to why no one in the community was consulted on this initiative before it was unveiled.
But it turns out that a very few select individuals were consulted. Greg Werkheiser, a Democrat who challenged Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) for a seat in the House of Delegates, issued a press release claiming credit for having developed this marvelous idea in concert with Mr. Hyland. It appears, therefore, that Mr. Hyland worked to develop this initiative with a candidate for political office that he endorsed while local parents and taxpayers were kept in the dark.
It is precisely this sort of bad political theater that causes county residents to lose faith in the policymaking process and to distrust their political leaders. If the nomination of this huge site and its almost 200 structures to the National Register of Historic Places ultimately causes the reuse process to be a bust, then county taxpayers are likely to be saddled with the full bill for the cost of preservation. Worse, the Board of Supervisors has shown that it is willing to consider stashing all manner of county facilities on the site of this world-class asset if it proves expedient to do so.
Mr. Hyland, with the complicity of his colleagues, has done south county residents and all county taxpayers a disservice. If Mr. Hyland truly believed that the nomination should be promoted aggressively, he should have told his constituents that he would be voting contrary to their desires. The political theater that we witnessed does nothing to address south county residents' concerns about land use or schools. Area residents deserve better.
Hyland declined to write a column explaining his side of the issue, saying that Adragna misrepresented the facts. However, Hyland responded to his critics at the Nov. 21 board meeting, an edited excerpt of which follows:
There was a suggestion from some cynics who viewed that board action [nominating the Lorton site] as having been an action that allegedly was orchestrated by this supervisor. I have been on this board for 18 years, and I have never known any situation in which any member of this board can orchestrate the nine other members, and if that were the first time, it would have been a miracle, because I don't know anyone who has that kind of authority or power. . . .
The board did what it felt was best to do under the circumstances. My motion that I made was a motion that the community had requested that I make, the residents across the street from the prison, the South County Federation and also our own oversight task force. . . .
The historic designation does not guarantee that any of the buildings within the reuse area have a guarantee that they will remain. And if, in the reuse process, it is felt best to take down rather than restore, then obviously that is going to be an option. The county Board of Supervisors recently supported the nomination of most of the former Lorton prison site to the National Register of Historic Places. Some residents of that area wanted the supervisors to postpone the vote. Steven P. Adragna, president of the Crosspointe homeowners association, explains why.