They look like citizens. They sound like citizens. And now they are starting to act like citizens.
They are showing up at public hearings wearing T-shirts proclaiming that they are "Citizens for Better Life" and taking sides in the hottest debate in Fairfax County: growth and what it should look like.
But Citizens for Better Life is not an ordinary citizens group. Instead of coming from the community where the projects would be built, Citizens and other groups like it are organized by the builders themselves.
The counteroffensive, led by the architect of a proposed development off the Dulles Toll Road in Vienna and Northern Virginia's leading building trade organization, takes a page from the neighbors it is up against in the battle over dense growth in Fairfax.
"A lot of people are telling me I've got to be insane to get involved in this," acknowledged Christian J. Lessard, the architect behind Citizens for Better Life.
Lessard's Vienna-based firm, the Lessard Group, is designing the vast Parkview community, a proposal for nearly 2,000 homes that developers are seeking to build off the toll road in Vienna, as well as the controversial MetroWest development near the Vienna Metro station.
"I've been seeing a trend lately," Lessard said. "People are saying they want to stop job growth in Fairfax County. That's just irresponsible."
So Lessard formed Citizens, which so far is small but vocal. The people who showed up at the public hearing wearing the Citizens T-shirts were Lessard's daughter and sister.
The dueling citizens groups highlight the increasingly emotional debate about what Fairfax is going to look like in the near future. People who moved into single-family homes fear urbanization as the Board of Supervisors steers the county toward higher-density growth near Metro stations. Builders say such growth is the only responsible way to accommodate all the people wanting to live in Fairfax as the job market booms.
With the organizational success of homeowners groups as their guide, the developers are going around the county advocating the need for new housing.
Suddenly the list of speakers at land-use hearings is stacked not just with people who oppose a project but also with people who favor it. Often those proponents do not live nearby and would not be directly affected by traffic or an increase in school-age children.
Lessard's group, for example, was incorporated as a nonprofit this fall to defend Parkview at public hearings against increasingly organized neighbors concerned about traffic and crowding. Like any advocacy group, Citizens has a mailing list, a Web site seeking donations and a stated mission: to improve the Washington region's quality of life by meeting its continued demand for housing. Lessard's name, however, is not on the site.
Incensed civic groups fighting a change to the county's master plan that would allow Parkview's construction along Hunter Mill Road accuse Lessard of masquerading as a community organizer.
That angers him and the builders, developers, engineers, land-use lawyers and others making a living from Fairfax's construction boom. They argue that they are citizens, too. They see how organized their opponents are and have determined that they need to fight fire with fire, appropriating the very tools that community groups are using to influence public opinion.
Developers are hiring consultants and public relations firms to market the benefits of their projects to business and civic groups and to create goodwill as local officials weigh pros and cons.
"The industry wants to provide a little more balance to the debate," said Bruce McLeod, a public relations executive whose clients include the firms developing Potomac Yard in Alexandria and the builder proposing more than 6,000 homes and offices and stores on 1,500 acres near Gainesville. McLeod, contending that opponents will always be more motivated than supporters, has promoted Brookfield Homes' pledge to make more than $100 million in road improvements to Gainesville.
But his newest tactic is seeking proponents of the project and persuading them to appear at public hearings.
"When it comes time for hearings, you identify folks who are supporters," McLeod said. "You contact them. You say, 'If you think this is important to your family, it's critical you show up.' "
To boost attendance at last month's organizational meeting in Reston, Citizens for Better Life e-mailed its 200 members with a progress report on the opposition to Parkview: "This case . . . is an extremely sensitive subject with the Hunter Mill residents and the Fair Growth activists," Lessard's daughter, Kellie Lessard Brooks, wrote, referring to neighbors of the project and a new countywide group fighting several developments in Fairfax. She offered "talking points" for those wanting to speak at public meetings.
Housing is the new advocates' mantra. Everyone has a right to a house, whether a starter condo near a Metro station or a mansion where a builder tears down a bungalow, they say. Local governments in Arlington and Montgomery counties, which are restricting such mansions, are denying people homes, the developers contend. With government providing limited solutions to Washington's traffic-choked roads, people need to live near where they work. Nowhere is this truer than in Fairfax, the region's job engine, which is on track to create about 25,000 jobs this year but to build just 6,700 homes.
"What you see is a very, very vocal bunch of people saying, 'Hell, no, we don't want any more change,' " said Jim Williams, executive vice president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, which represents builders and developers and just incorporated a group called Housing Choices for All. "You see the fear of change driving local politics. . . . But in all of these growth wars, who is the advocate for housing? The industry is undertaking an effort to be that advocate."
To that end, the building association says it is launching a campaign to "educate" homeowners, civic and business groups and county supervisors about the region's projected housing shortage. The goal is to get specific projects approved. But the group also wants to persuade local officials to change their master plans to allow dense development where residents can live, work and shop. That would cut down on driving, Williams says.
Rather than promote "development of housing," the industry is now going to advocate for "housing itself," Williams said, citing it as a need "as basic as clothing and food."
Neighborhood activists call the industry's strategy a cynical ploy to hide its real motivation in jumping into the debate.
"We get involved because these are our homes," said Steve Whittaker, a telecommunications consultant and leader of the Hunter Mill Action Coalition, a group of residents fighting Parkview. "We are legitimate local residents. These special interest groups are driven entirely by profit. They're distorting and subverting the public process."
Whittaker and his neighbors say Lessard and his family misled the public by not disclosing that the firm has a financial stake in getting Parkview approved. Lessard denied the charge, saying his group has broader goals than the Hunter Mill project.
State Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites-Davis (R-Fairfax), whose district includes the Hunter Mill property, predicted that the building industry's efforts will backfire.
"The bottom line is that the elected officials have to listen to the voters before they listen to people who are going to make a monetary profit off these decisions," she said.