Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly yesterday accused Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of a "raw exercise of power" in pushing federal legislation that would block a development at the Vienna Metro station -- and said the congressman is threatening the independence of local governments across the region.
"Is that really what you're saying -- that from now on I need to say to every applicant in a land-use case, you've got to go see the congressman?" Connolly (D) said of the 31 words buried in a $1.5 billion special authorization for Metro that Davis (R) is filing today. He called the legislation "a threat to all of us" that "encroaches on the prerogative of each local government to be masters of our own destiny."
A rider in the 17-page bill prohibits Metro from selling or leasing 3.7 acres it owns just south of the station, a small but critical parcel where the first of 13 residential and office towers would rise in a mini-city of narrow streets friendly to walkers.
Developer Pulte Homes is seeking the county's approval for 2,250 homes, offices and stores. But the project has met fierce opposition from neighborhood groups skeptical that residents and office workers will actually get out of their cars. They fear massive traffic tie-ups on already congested streets.
Davis, who lives in Vienna with his wife, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), stepped into the charged debate in April, pledging at a community meeting to force Pulte to scale the project back.
The long-running battle over MetroWest took on a sharp partisan edge yesterday, as tensions between the top Democrat in Davis's district and the Republican congressman erupted.
"Congressman Davis has an interest in Vienna area residents being masters of their own destinies," Davis spokesman David Marin said of Connolly's comments.
Marin noted that the bill also sets conditions on the sale of other Metro-owned land next to stations in Takoma Park and Largo. In Fairfax, he said Davis questions the wisdom of allowing more development at a station where parking is tight and Metro cars on the Orange Line are already over-crowded.
But Marin acknowledged that the congressman, who was both applauded and criticized for stepping into a local land-use issue in his district, sees the legislation as leverage to force the county board to demand a less dense development.
"I'd rather the folks on the Hill focus on immigration reform than local land use," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who also chairs the Metro board. "It's the only leverage [Davis] has to get the density down."
Pulte officials said they are pushing ahead with plans for the project, which is tentatively scheduled to go before the Planning Commission in December and the supervisors early next year. However, if it loses the Metro land, the developer will not make $10 million in improvements to bus shelters, roads and a parking lot at the Vienna station.
"Here a developer is willing to come in and make improvements free of charge," Jon Lindgren, Pulte's manager for land acquisition, said. He expressed regret that "with all the discussion that's gone on about how underfunded Metro is, and with a lot of these stations needing critical improvements," Pulte's investment, including a pending $6.5 million purchase of the Vienna land, is in jeopardy.
Two towers are planned for the Metro land, which is just 150 feet wide. Lindgren said those buildings could be shifted off the property. But the land is mostly grass and trees, and supporters of the project said that if it is not built on, it could stand as a barrier to pedestrians between the station and the development.
Will Elliott, a founder of Fairfax Citizens for Responsible Growth, a group pushing for fewer homes in MetroWest, acknowledged that excising the Metro land from the project would shift it "from being transit-oriented development to transit-adjacent development." But he said too many homes "could make the area dysfunctional" with congestion.
"To take away that property is critical," said Rick Bochner, a MetroWest supporter who lives across Interstate 66. By setting the stores farther from the station, the development will discourage the foot traffic it is designed for. "You'll end with something that looks like everything else that's out here."