The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors urged Virginia officials yesterday to reconsider a controversial rerouting of a proposed major highway as criticism mounted over the role Northern Virginia's highway commissioner played in redrawing the route.
The state's two candidates for governor also joined the controversy.
Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat, supported the county's call for reconsideration of the route.
State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, a Republican, announced his staff will review the actions of commissioner William B. Wrench.
Wrench, who represents the Washington suburbs on the 10-member state board, authored a motion last month that moved the proposed Springfield Bypass closer to three of his land holdings and put an interstate cloverleaf on his lawyer's property.
"The best that you could say is, it [Wrench's vote]was a disastrous mistake," said Fairfax Supervisor James M. Scott yesterday. "It really clouds the issue unnecessarily and creates the perception, rightly or wrongly, that decisions are made for private gain."
Barbara C. Pratt, a vice chairman of Common Cause of Virginia, a self-styled citizens lobbying group, said Wrench's vote "appears to be a clear violation of the conflict of interest act." Pratt, attending the Fairfax board meeting, said her organization's attorney is studying the issue.
Wrench, a longtime Republican politican, rejected the criticism and said in an interview he has no intention of changing his opinion on the best route for the bypass or the propriety of his voting for it.
"I don't think I had to listen to Common Cause or Chuck Robb or Fairfax Board Chairman Jack Herrity or the county board or anybody else for my conscience," Wrench said. "I don't give a rip what the Fairfax County board wants this Monday or next Monday. My responsibility is to the people of Virginia."
Benjamin Ragsdale, a spokesman for Coleman said the attorney general's office had not been informed by either Wrench or State Highway Commissioner Harold King that Wrench had a potential conflict of interest, even though Wrench had written King six days before the vote about some of his holdings near the proposed route.
John T. Hazel, Wrench's attorney, whose property is expected to benefit from the new route, is a longtime Republican campaign contributor and serves with Wrench on Coleman's gubernatorial campaign finance committee.
Robb yesterday wrote to King urging reconsideration of the state action, aides said. Robb criticized the commission at a Fairfax political fund-raiser Sunday for its "failure to adequately take into account Fairfax County's and Northern Virginia's needs and local concerns," but he did not comment directly on Wrench's action.
Robb said, however, state officials should disclose any interest they have in upcoming decisions and then abstain from participating in them.
Highway department spokesman A.W. Coates said in Richmond King had no further comment beyond his letter to Wrench approving Wrench's voting. "He'll want to await the report of the A.G.," said Coates.
The route of the Springfield Bypass, a much-debated descendant of the Outer Beltway planned in the 1960s, will help determine the pattern of future development in the county's remaining open space as it curves from Herndon in the northwest to Fort Belvoir in the southeast. Although funding for the $200 million project remains uncertain, county officials are eager to set a route so they can preseve a right of way for the highway.
The county board voted unanimously on June 29 for a route that would take the road near a proposed government complex and provide what county officials say is a more direct link with Shirley Highway. But the state commission voted 10-0 to alter about 10 miles of the county's proposed 35-mile route.
State highway planners and engineers supported the changes, saying they were more workable than the county route. But the changes also brought bypass exits to within several hundred yards of two separate locations of Potomac Mini-Storage Co., a warehouse rental firm Wrench owns, on Fullerton and Telegraph roads.
Wrench also owns a vacant four-acre lot on Fullerton Road, a dead-end street that would be turned into a two-way thoroughfare leading from the bypass under the state route. In addition, the new route places a full I-66 interchange on a 387-acre tract owned by Hazel, one of the county's most influential developers, and Milton V. Peterson.
Fairfax Supervisor Joseph Alexander, while opposing the state route, said he does not believe Wrench acted improperly. "I personally don't think it's significant," Alexander said. "Only if he had 150 acres of prime land would I think there would be some possibility of a conflict, and there isn't."
Board Chairman Herrity said he feared the controversy might distract citizens' attention from the importance of the bypass, a project he has long championed. "It the controversy puts a cloud on the decision by VDH&T the Virginia Department of Highway and Transportation , but not on the need for the road," he said.
The highway department's Coates said that the only previous incident of conflict-of-interest allegations involving a member of the commission he could recall occurred in the late 1960s and involved Richard Holland of Virginia Beach, who was alleged to have used insider knowledge to buy land near a planned highway project. Coates said an investigation exonerated Holland of wrongdoing but he was asked to resign from the commission by Gov. Mills E. Godwin.