Twenty-five years ago the young son of an Arlington surgeon looked west and saw opportunity where others saw vacant land.
John Tilghman Hazel Jr. was a square-jawed, plain-spoken lawyer with a crew cut and unending energy in 1958, when Fairfax County was still partly agrarian and poised for growth.
The following decades brought Washington's suburban boom to Fairfax and with it, unparalleled success for 'Til' Hazel. As the county's population tripled, Hazel emerged as its most controversial public figure as a judge, lieutenant in the Byrd organization, community booster, preeminent zoning lawyer and developer and, eventually, as near to a political kingmaker as Northern Virginia's diffuse power structure allows.
Today Hazel, 52 and still sporting his crew cut, ranges from Fauquier County, where he wins prizes for the corn he grows on $5.5 million worth of family-owned land, to the District, where he is in line to be the next president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
"Whether he's the most influential person in Northern Virginia, I don't know," said Alexandria attorney and Democratic party broker William G. Thomas. "He certainly is one of them."
While his sphere of influence has encompassed everything from cable television to hospitals, Hazel's foremost interest remains with his primary source of power--land, and his talent at opening Fairfax to development. Once again he is challenging the county's growth controls in Virginia's courts, which have always been receptive to his defense of property rights, and he is planning a massive new commercial center for the county's undeveloped west.
"I have always been interested in land," Hazel says. "I feel comfortable with it. I like it. I like the theory and fact of owning land."
To his many admirers, Hazel is a man of vision who brought Fairfax from its wild-west days of zoning scandals and courthouse cronyism to a more mature era of high-technology industry, rational land-use planning and stable, business-oriented government. He is blunt but generous, they say, impatient and hardworking, Harvard-educated and unusually intelligent behind his down-home, country-lawyer veneer.
Hazel's critics, many of whom follow his career with an almost perverse devotion, say Fairfax has lost as Hazel has won. "Where I become concerned about the man is not personally," says county Supervisor Audrey Moore, Hazel's most persistent and best-informed critic during the past decade. "He's intelligent, he's charming, he's got all the ability in the world. He could be doing a lot of good for the county.
"But in playing his game of real-life Monopoly, he gets the board to change the rules in such a way that it takes away our ability to plan, to zone and everything else," Moore says. "The end product is going to be higher taxes, more traffic and a less-livable place."
To his detractors, "Chainsaw Til" is a bully who manipulates politicians, cuts down trees and uses his network of influence to enrich himself. "What's the name of the bird that fouls its own nest?" says Lilla Richards, former president of the Fairfax Federation of Citizen Associations. "To me, that's what he is--and then he escapes to Fauquier County."
"I'm convinced there's two Til Hazels running around on this earth," says Constance Bedell, a colleague of Hazel on the George Mason University board. "There's Til who's a land developer and a zoning attorney and has horns and a tail. And then there's Til who's the most big-hearted, gullible, soft-hearted man in the world. And I don't know which is the real Til Hazel."
Hazel shrugs off allegations of improper influence wielding that have dotted his career. He jokes and, he acknowledges, at times capitalizes on his image as the power-hungry developer. "What have I done now?" he will ask when a reporter calls. "When I'm quiet, I'm plotting against the world . . . . I work best at night."
Hazel says the allegations flow from a minority of sore losers who resent his development efforts, which by his own conservative estimate have been directly responsible for bringing 60,000 people to the 600,000-resident county.
"The thing that created the animosity toward me was that the no-growth extremists couldn't address the issues on their merit," Hazel says. "They had a quick fix with me, personified by Lilla Richards, that I was just doing this for greed or money or power . . . . That's how I got such a high profile, with the devil tag."
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the two faces of Til Hazel than a meeting he held in 1975 with Richards and another McLean citizen activist, Maya Huber. Richards and Huber, who later ran unsuccessfully for the county board, were heading an effort to redraw the McLean master plan, and Hazel was representing a landowner who wanted to build more densely--and so more profitably--than Huber's proposal would allow.
Hazel felt so strongly that the parcel in question deserved higher density, that, Richards says, he offered to forgo his fee in the case, donating half the money to the George Mason University Foundation and half to any charity Huber and Richards might choose.
"I was speechless," Richards recalls, saying she considered the offer a kind of bribe. Huber says she thought the offer was an "insult."
Hazel remembers the incident proudly. "I was just absolutely disgusted with the nonsense that was coming out of Lilla's mouth," he recalls. "Every time she'd go anywhere, she'd tell the assembled citizens that greed had brought us over there--money, money, money and greed. I got so damn tired of her mouthing off about my fee, I said: 'Lilla, I'll split my damn fee with you.' If that's evil, I'll make the most of it."
Hazel's grandfather was president of an Arlington bank; his uncle, the Arlington commonwealth's attorney; his father, a prominent Arlington surgeon with a farm in rural McLean. "This is Virginia," says Fairfax Supervisor Nancy K. Falck, "and it still helps to have Virginia roots."
When he crammed for the Virginia bar exam, after training at Harvard, Harvard Law School and the Army, Hazel's roommate was future governor John N. Dalton. The resulting friendship, like the Alaska hunting trips with Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) and the relationships with other powerful figures, would later improve his access and polish his aura of invincibility.
His first cases in Fairfax related to land condemnation for the Capital Beltway, and--despite a general law practice and three years as a general district court judge--he never left the land business.
In the mid-1960s, Hazel defended the late Andrew Clark, the preeminent zoning lawyer and political boss of his time, in a zoning bribery case. When a "reform" board took over in 1968, Hazel was appointed to a committee charged with rewriting the county's zoning law.
But Hazel soon was suing the county on an almost regular basis, scoring the victories in Virginia's property-revering courts that made his name. Whenever the board tried to slow or regulate growth--with sewer moratoriums, denials of building permits, refusals to hear rezoning cases--Hazel and a few other zoning attorneys would walk over to the courthouse and get the controls tossed out.
Hazel's critics, such as Supervisor Moore, say his lawsuits ensured irrational, costly growth. Hazel says he was defending property owners' rights against the arbitrary, political incursions of the reform board--which said "orderly growth" but meant "no growth."
"I saw early on that we had to get into the trenches and draw this line clearly, and we had to go to the courts, because it was hard to get any hearing for my position, the business position," Hazel says. "We essentially spent six years unmasking the no-growth movement . . . . If you asked me what could have been better for my career than the no-growth movement, damned if I could dream anything up."
By the mid-1970s, when a more conservative board took over, Hazel was spending more time on his own projects, such as Fairfax Station and Burke Center, and less on other builders'. Today he almost never steps into a courthouse, managing his affairs from a map-strewn corner office in an imposing white structure he built in Fairfax City.
To every endeavor, his friends say--lobbying the General Assembly to establish a law school at George Mason University, fund-raising for Harvard and St. Stephen's School, renting a helicopter to give downstate politicians a view of the area's rush-hour traffic--Hazel brings a doggedness and passion for action instead of talk.
John C. Wood, former mayor of Fairfax City and Hazel's predecessor as George Mason rector, used to hold retreats for the university board to discuss the school's future.
"I thought they were pretty good, but Til called it the Great Thoughts Department, and he didn't have any time for it," Wood recalls. "When he was rector, they did away with that--and he did all the great thinking."
Hazel's network also grew with the years, as the developer enlisted, hired or helped a host of citizen leaders and county officials. The county attorney left his government post in 1972 to join Hazel's law firm. The county's top planner joined one of Hazel's development partners in 1979. When Hazel wanted board approval for a landfill expansion in Lorton, he hired a former citizen activist there as a consultant to win support.
In 1981, Hazel was pushing the supervisors to approve the Springfield Bypass, a proposed 30-mile outer beltway that would curve through much of the county--and much of Hazel's land. Hazel decided a "citizens' coalition" would prove the road enjoyed broad support, and he arranged a meeting in the office of then-highway commissioner William B. Wrench, a Hazel friend and client, to set one up.
Four months later the president of the McLean Citizens Association was testifying before the state highway department on behalf of the "Coalition for the Fairfax Parkway," which she described as a "group of citizens who believe that . . . construction of the Fairfax Parkway, or Springfield Bypass, is essential to Fairfax County's future."
"There are thousands of people in Fairfax County who owe him," Richards says. "The average little Harry Homeowner trying to save his tree or his stream valley or something else that's in Hazel's way is up against more than he knows."
With his network, his skill and his detailed historical memory on most pieces of land, Hazel does seem to get his way, county officials say. In doing so, Moore claims, he sets precedents that other developers can profit from, often on arcane questions of sewer or road policy that bore many residents but can mean millions of dollars to developers. Some items:
* In 1975 Hazel and his partners, condominium developer Giuseppe Cecchi and builder Milton V. Peterson, were planning Burke Center, a new town second only to Reston in the county. Given the projected size of the community--15,000 people--state highway officials said Burke Center Parkway should be four lanes wide.
Hazel wanted to build only two, which would save him money, and the county supported him. "The board talked about it in executive session in 1976 and decided to get the governor's help on it," Moore says. "I didn't hear any more about it until the board got a letter from Don Keith, the state highway department resident engineer, saying he didn't want to do it, but he would, if the board voted in open session to ask the state to waive the standards."
The board voted to waive the normal requirements, the road was built two lanes wide and Moore says residents now complain of traffic congestion.
* During the late 1970s, Hazel wanted a sewer line stretched across Rte. 123 to increase the development potential of 50 acres he owned in the Occoquan watershed near Fairfax City. The supervisors gave George Mason University, which owned an adjoining tract of land, permission to sewer their parcel for a field house, but they said no to Hazel.
Hazel, who had been appointed to the school's board by the governor and had helped plan the field house expansion, then offered to pay for the university's sewer line--if he could tap into it. George Mason officials, led by Hazel, said they couldn't find the money anywhere else. In 1981 the supervisors gave Hazel permission to build his sewer.
"It is difficult to understand," Hazel wrote Moore when she accused him of having a conflict of interest, "why the long-accepted and traditional goal of public-private cooperation to serve the mutual benefit should raise any concern."
* When the county first talked of awarding a potentially lucrative cable-television monopoly, dozens of prominent citizens scrambled for a piece of the action, signing on as local lawyers or shareholders of national cable firms. Hazel was no exception as he joined with a Time Inc. subsidiary to seek the Fairfax franchise.
The supervisors delayed and studied the issue for several years, however, and Hazel's firm withdrew, leaving him without a horse in the high-stakes race.
Several months before the supervisors were finally ready to award the franchise, a previously unmentioned firm, Media General Inc. of Richmond, appeared on the scene with Hazel's law firm on its side. Last year its subsidiary was awarded the $100 million franchise, and Hazel once again crossed the finish line a winner.
* In 1970 Hazel represented a building company that wanted to develop the Burling tract, a 336-acre forest overlooking the Potomac River in McLean. The proposal sparked one of the biggest citizen protests in Fairfax's history, as the genteel neighbors organized to save the nearby land.
The county agreed to buy the land for a park but could not settle on a price with Hazel's client. The confrontation climaxed one morning when Hazel sent his brother William, a paving and water and sewer contractor, to begin clearing a road.
"He would knock down one tree about every thirty minutes, just enough to keep their attention," Hazel laughs. "Two weeks later they came up with the money."
Environmentalists now cite the Dranesville District Park as one of their greatest victories. Hazel calls it a loss for the county.
"I don't get a hell of a lot of satisfaction from thinking Fairfax has a lot of 36-inch specimen trees on the Burling Tract and a sign saying: 'Don't walk under the trees,' " he says. "A lot of people got a lot of political mileage out of this so-called victory, and the public got clipped for $3.5 million."
Hazel says, in fact, that he has never pushed one of his projects to the detriment of Fairfax County.
"I have always been frustrated by the preoccupation that if I'm going to make money, then solving the county's problems isn't enough," Hazel says. "I don't believe profits are evil."