An Oct. 14 article about growth in Fairfax County incorrectly described the ownership of 309 acres at Hunter Mill Road and the Dulles Toll Road. K. Hovnanian and WCI/Renaissance do not own the property but have a contract to purchase the property that is contingent on rezoning of the site. (Published 11/2/2005)
The trees were the last straw.
Becky Cate spotted the destruction one day last December: Amid the sprawl of her neighborhood just south of Tysons Corner, a Caterpillar had barreled through a grove of towering poplars and oaks, wiping out what she and her neighbors considered their last remaining treasure. Giant trees that a developer had promised to save on an old family goat farm were now being bulldozed for 14 more houses.
"We started making calls to the county and said, 'This is not right,' " recalled Cate, a civic activist and former candidate for county supervisor who helped lead a fight for fewer houses on the property. "We want the natural canopy back. . . . It's a high-profile case, and people are watching it."
The campaign about the lost trees around the goat farm has been hard fought and is a sign of a new era of homeowner politics in Fairfax County. Twenty-five years after a backlash against suburban development threw the county's leadership out of office, homeowners are rising in revolt again, this time over an urban future they never envisioned when they moved in.
As developers press to fill space in subdivisions and office parks to create denser collections of homes and offices, neighbors from disparate corners of the county have established a network called FairGrowth to fight back. They want to protect their quiet streets and driveway basketball hoops from condominium and office towers and big new homes crammed into the last slivers of buildable land.
The activists have no formal membership list but represent about 20 civic groups, some new, some newly devoted to saving long-bypassed land from development. Connected through a widely subscribed Web site and the blogosphere, news releases and protests, FairGrowth members are showing up at land-use meetings in force, determined to have a larger say in decisions they say favor developers over neighborhoods.
FairGrowth is on a collision course with county leaders, who say they are listening but are steadfast in their view that people filling the 25,000 jobs created in Fairfax last year have to live somewhere. The county's population is predicted to rise to 1.5 million in the next 20 years.
"In-fill gets very tricky," said county Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose campaign donations from the real estate and development industry rankle many activists. "Sometimes we say yes, sometimes no." He cited the board's recent denial of a proposal for 1,200 homes a half-mile from the Vienna Metro station -- too far to qualify as the kind of transit-oriented "smart growth" county leaders are pushing.
"No one is in thrall to developers. There are some people who do not want any growth or development of any kind," Connolly said. "But in lots of parts of the county, that's not the case."
Connolly dismissed some of the activists as Republicans with "obvious political agendas" to loosen the Democrats' hold on the county board. FairGrowth leaders deny the contention, saying members come from all political parties.
They say they are often misunderstood.
"There's a desire to constantly label the opposition as NIMBYs," said Will Elliott, a FairGrowth founder from Vienna, referring to the "Not in My Back Yard" moniker given to many growth opponents. "It's just the opposite of that. You can go to any area [of the county] and find the same thing."
FairGrowth first mobilized last year around opposition to MetroWest, a mini-city of 2,200 condominiums, townhouses, offices and stores planned at the Vienna Metro station. When hundreds of people -- including an angry Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) -- filled the Oakton High School auditorium for a community meeting in the spring, organizers realized they had touched a nerve. They recognized shared concerns with other communities looking at dense growth planned around Tysons Corner, the Reston and Mount Vernon areas, and the Washington & Old Dominion trail.
In planners' argot, much of what the activists are fighting is "in-fill" -- homes squeezed onto ever smaller lots. Even denser urban development and redevelopment are planned for Metro stations in Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Rockville. Planners and elected leaders say this is the only way to get people out of their cars and control sprawl.
"Wouldn't it be nice to live in an environment where we don't have to get into our car to go some place?" said Rick Bochner, a retired transit executive who lives near the Vienna Metro station and favors the near-transit development. "This is the environment MetroWest is creating."
But FairGrowth complains that such planned projects are too dense for a suburb stuck in gridlock, with crowded schools, polluted streams and precious little open space.
Led by an environmental lawyer, a retired economist, an international aid consultant and a handful of other Type A professionals, the group is well versed in land-use lingo. Many have made themselves experts in the arcana of resource protection areas, stream declassification and area plan reviews.
"Every zoning case is becoming more difficult," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), whose western Fairfax district once was thought of as undeveloped.
Now he's smack in the middle of a battle over a proposal to build 10 townhouses.
Frey said it was a lot easier getting a major townhouse community called Center Ridge through the planning process 10 years ago. "You didn't have people living next door," he said. "Now people are saying they want this tree and that tree saved. They're literally walking properties."
Neighborhood pressure pushed the case of the lost trees on the goat farm to the top of the county board's agenda in the spring. The supervisors ordered the developer to stop work until it came up with a plan to replace the trees. The board will take it up Monday.
Compared with years past, there is relatively little development occurring in Fairfax, where open farmland disappeared long ago. The docket of land-use cases is thinning fast. Last year, 3,000 homes were built.
What's changing is the county's planning blueprint for how land is to be used. The land-use map is being reworked to reflect denser growth along an anticipated rail line along the Dulles Toll Road.
And now, a proposal that would allow 1,800 homes on 309 acres where Hunter Mill Road meets the Toll Road has alarmed neighbors.
The current zoning allows about 250 houses, but two developers want to build townhouses and commercial strips on the land.
"I would say the project is transit-friendly," said David DeMarco, an executive with K. Hovnanian, which with WCI/Renaissance would develop most of the site. Opponents, he said, "are reaching out to each other and creating panic. It hasn't been as much of a collaborative effort as we originally envisioned."
Critics of the project see it as a done deal.
"People see that sprawl is being pushed out every side. They can't see an end to it," said Steve Whittaker, a member of the newly formed Hunter Mill Action Coalition. Members of the group are holding rush-hour roadside protests, waving signs that say: "Density: Few Profit. All Pay."
Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said she has not taken a position on the proposed changes.
But DeMarco said the land was purchased "with an understanding" that a rezoning for higher density would follow. The developers took out ads in local newspapers last week describing a "wonderful new community taking shape" between the airport and Tysons Corner.
Tensions between activists and county supervisors are exploding publicly. After a three-hour hearing last month, the board unanimously approved the construction of 24 homes on 13 acres behind the Washington & Old Dominion trail in Vienna. Before the vote, Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), who represents the area, sounded exasperated as she told opponents that land use was more complicated than they seemed to realize. Furious activists said their supervisor was being patronizing.
"The board is not engaging with the public," FairGrowth leader Deborah Reyher said.
Smyth, a former planning commissioner, said she was not elected "to make decisions everybody agrees with. . . . We're not encouraging growth; it's happening because of the job market." She added that she wonders whether the Internet has distorted FairGrowth's influence.
The activists' true strength probably won't be known until the next county board race in 2007. Privately, supervisors are assessing how widespread the opposition to growth is. Meanwhile, the stalemate continues.
Said Stan Settle Jr. of Pulte Homes, the developer of MetroWest: "The whole thing that people don't want to accept here is that Fairfax is urban. Like it or not, everyone wants to be in Fairfax County."