When attorneys Keith Martin and Curt Bradley arrived at a scheduled public hearing on a proposed town house development before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this week, they were confident the problems with the project they represented had been solved.
Compromises had been worked out with civic groups. Special attention had been given to the width of private roads in the project, planned for the corner of Kirby Road and Great Falls Street, between Falls Church and McLean.
But to their complete surprise, they were told the public hearing on the project was being deferred.
What the two men didn't know was that their project was caught in the middle of a battle between the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the Northern Virginia Builders Association.
The supervisors are angry over the association's all-out lobbying effort on behalf of state legislation that would limit, or prohibit, the county from requiring builders to post bonds guaranteeing completion of private roads and other publicly used facilities when they construct a development.
Although this is the first year the local builders' group has lobbied for what it calls "bond reform" legislation, the campaign has sparked a new battle in a feud that has been festering for at least the last six years.
The bond reform proposal has brought strong words from builders and their representatives and outcries from supervisors. The association's support of the bill, which in its original form would have prohibited Fairfax from requiring bonds for any private roads, led the board of supervisors this week to defer all public hearings and rezoning actions involving private roads.
Passage of the bill "could mean the end of town house construction" in booming Fairfax County and spell trouble for many commercial projects, according to Dranesville Supervisor Nancy Falck.
She said the county's insistence that a developer bond all streets in a project before construction starts on any section of it has helped keep the county from having to pick up the tab when builders fail to produce what they promise.
But Gary Garczynski, president of the builders association, said county policies are hard on builders. "A locally owned and operated builder cannot get a bond from a reputable bonding company. The whole industry is operating on letters of credit," Garczynski said.
He said builders who have completed their projects have trouble getting their bond money back for a variety of reasons, including backed-up paperwork.
The local builders group has agreed this week to go along with an amendment to the bill that would allow bonding of private roads, storm-water retention facilities and work necessary to maintain steep-slope tracts. But the builders group can claim victory, because the amended version would still keep the county from forcing a builder to bond an entire project.
"I hope we don't find ourselves in a combative situation with the supervisors. We were working to get bond reform," Garczynski said.
Samuel Finz, chief executive officer of the association, said Monday's decision to defer public hearings on zoning changes was a "clearly retaliatory action." He also questioned the legalities of the deferrals.
Martha Pennino, vice chairman of the Fairfax board, said the action by the builders "stuck in the craw of all members of the board of supervisors. There is not a developer in this county that is really experiencing bankruptcy" or other financial woes because of the bond process, she said. "For them to go to the legislature and push for this . . . , all of this is high-handed," she said.
"They want to be able to come in and bond one small parcel. For example, if they have 100 acres, they want to bond and start on only the first 10 acres. Then we have got unfinished streets and sewers" for the county to pay for, Pennino said.
She said the county has to go to court to get bonds released when the builder defaults. "The taxpayers have to pick up the tab."
Tony Ahuja, director of technical services for the builders group, said the board has been saying it would come up with meaningful bond reform for several years. In late 1982, Price Waterhouse completed a comprehensive evaluation of the county's bonding process, but Ahuja said none of the recommendations in that study were adopted.
In "1984, we were ready to go down to Richmond and support bond reform measures, but the board adopted the Price Waterhouse study in concept. Builders have been meeting with the supervisors since February of 1984 to implement the study. We met a stone wall," Ahuja said.
There could be long-range implications for builders in Fairfax County's economic base if the bonding of private roads continues to be a volatile issue. Several supervisors said they would be hesitant to approve high-density projects unless they have the dollars from the builders in bonds to pay for roads in case hard times hit developers.
"There could be real problems with density," said Supervisor Joe Alexander. He is upset with the association's actions but said he would be "willing to be the one to hold out the olive branch to the builders. I hope they feel the same."
Attorneys Martin and Bradley, who were caught off guard by Monday's actions, said they hope a hearing will be soon.
"Our hands are tied. I hope it the battle doesn't escalate," Martin said.
"The PD, planned development, category is a needed zoning category in that it gives flexibility to the county and the developer. Without the availability of private roads, that flexibility is greatly hindered," Martin said.
Several lawyers contacted would not talk on the record about the problems with the bond process, but several agreed with builder complaints about having to bond amenities such as tot lots or swimming pools. Ahuja said guarantees that pools are completed should be a part of the contractual relationship between the home buyer and the seller.
"When a builder promises a pool, there is a legal vehicle in the contract for solving any problems," he said.
But that theory bothers county officials who said such procedures don't provide adequate protections for buyers.