In Arlington County, crowds of protesters have helped derail construction of homes and high-rises in older neighborhoods, and politicians mull policies to preserve parkland and cut building height limits by half.
In Alexandria, well-organized activists have stepped up campaigns to stem the tide of mammoth office buildings and pricey town houses washing over the historic waterfront.
And in Fairfax County, growing opposition to bulldozers in established, leafy neighborhoods prompted nervous supervisors last week to consider restrictions on such projects--as well as whether to limit construction in areas without enough schools, roads or other public services.
The suburban growth wars, waged for years on faraway farmland, have moved back inside the Beltway.
Roused by a construction boom and worsening traffic, angry residents in the inner suburbs are following the lead of their neighbors in fast-growing outer counties--lobbying to curtail current developments and to put stricter limits on future ones.
The movement has been strengthened by the results of this month's Virginia elections, in which voters installed a slate of slow-growth candidates in Loudoun County and dumped incumbents in Prince William and Fairfax who were blamed for rapid development. Suburban activists closer to Washington now warn that similar fates will befall other politicians who don't act to better control growth.
"We've had a lot of growth very quickly," said Michael Nardolilli, who is leading a movement to form a land trust for preserving open space in Arlington. "There's this feeling out there that the character of Arlington and indeed all of Northern Virginia is changing. And people are trying to search for tools to preserve what they have."
Even in Maryland, where state laws allow strict local limits on growth, there has been fresh opposition to town houses in Prince George's County and to commercial development in Montgomery.
Home builders and developers, already battered by political attacks and tougher restrictions in the countryside, now complain that opposition to construction in established neighborhoods--known as in-fill development--threatens to cripple their businesses and hurt the region's economy.
The standoff underscores an inherent contradiction among suburbanites across the country: If many hate sprawl, it seems, even more hate its cure, density.
"If everyone is agreed that we need to address the sprawl problem, in-fill development has to be a part of the solution," said Mark Looney, government affairs manager for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, which opposes many efforts to limit development. "You have to have a place for these people to work and live. . . . You can't have sprawl and not support density. You can't have it both ways."
Indeed, tension over development isn't confined to the suburbs. In older D.C. neighborhoods, especially in Northwest, residents are complaining about "teardowns." Those are older homes in modest neighborhoods that builders are replacing with larger, more expensive houses.
Some of the fiercest development battles in Northern Virginia this year have been fought not in distant horse country but within plain sight of the Potomac River. Objections to some projects have been so loud that they have prompted politicians to endorse sweeping initiatives to control growth.
In Arlington, a proposal to build a 12-story building behind the Iwo Jima Memorial sparked so much protest that the developer, Lawrence Brandt, withdrew his proposal and sold the land this summer. The Planning Commission then recommended decreasing the neighborhood's building height limit from 125 feet to 60 feet, a policy likely to be approved next month by the County Board.
In addition to the land trust campaign, another fledgling effort in Arlington would toughen standards for construction on small chunks of land. And next door in Alexandria, a task force is being formed to recommend what development along Washington Street--the city's main thoroughfare--should look like.
But the project that garnered the most attention recently in both Arlington and Alexandria is Potomac Yard, a 400-acre former rail yard straddling the two jurisdictions that will include a 625-room hotel, hundreds of town houses and 10 million square feet of office space.
The developer, Commonwealth Atlantic Properties, finally received the blessing of Alexandria officials and many residents in September--but only after making concessions to citizen groups and attending some 125 community meetings, said Richard Gilchrist, the company's president.
"There's definitely a tense dialogue going on now," said Alexandria City Council member Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D), referring to Potomac Yard, the proposed replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the proposed consolidation of the massive Patent and Trademark Office near Old Town. "All of these things are coming to a head at one time."
Such tension is also evident in Fairfax, where activists have successfully derailed projects including a hotel and office complex near the Vienna Metro station but failed in efforts to keep McLean's beloved Evans Farm from being subdivided. And this month in the Hunter Mill District, two-term Supervisor Robert B. Dix Jr. (R) was ousted by rookie Catherine M. Hudgins (D), who attacked his record on growth management in the Reston and Vienna areas.
With the rising clamor, Fairfax supervisors agreed at last week's board meeting to consider enacting a set of regulations to govern what can be built in established neighborhoods. And three days after the election, Democratic supervisors directed county staff to study limiting development in areas without adequate roads, schools or other public services.
Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) said anger over in-fill development has come to dominate much of the debate over growth in Fairfax.
"In some ways, it's more controversial than any other kind of development," Connolly said. "It's in people's neighborhoods, right next door. That can get a lot more attention than 1,000 new houses out on farmland somewhere."
In Maryland, even though many jurisdictions have laws that prohibit development unless roads and schools exist to support it, the pattern is similar. A new slow-growth County Council majority in Montgomery recently dismantled a policy passed by the previous council that was designed to expedite development, while some officials in Prince George's are calling for higher development fees to pay for building schools.
Indeed, leaders of the region's slow-growth movement grudgingly acknowledge that selling the benefits of denser development is harder than inspiring opposition. Concentrating projects around Metro stations, major highways and other developed areas is one of the cardinal tenets of "smart growth," because, proponents argue, it cuts traffic and preserves land, but it often runs into heavy opposition from neighbors.
"It's not an anti-growth movement; it's not even a slow-growth movement," argued Paul Hughes, a Mantua energy consultant who heads the Fairfax chapter of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "It's about channeling it in the most cost-effective manner. It's a paradigm shift."
Yet drawing such distinctions is often difficult and, critics say, unworkable. " 'Smart growth' is 'higher density but not near my house,' " said David D. Flanagan, a McLean developer.
Consider Oakton, a residential community several miles west of the Capital Beltway near Interstate 66 that is considered a prime candidate for more development. A proposal to build a 95-home subdivision met with a neighborhood revolt that prompted the developer to cut 34 homes from the project and pledge land for a library, officials said.
"One reason I moved out to the suburbs was to get a little more green space, a little more open space," said George F. Lehnigk, a patent lawyer who helped lead the protests. "My wife and I didn't like the clang of the city. But now all those things we moved to Oakton for are evaporating before our eyes. . . . If we didn't think critically, our next move would be to hop out to Loudoun and ruin that. We have to stop the cycle."
Staff writers Stephen C. Fehr and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.