Fairfax County has sent two of its environmental officials to the dump -- literally -- touching off charges that the two were being penalized for their testiomony in the county's recent court case over downzoning in the Occoquan watershed.
County officials deny that Department of Environment Management officials Stuart Terrett and Oscar Hendrickson were transferred from their powerful positions to jobs at a county dump because of their testimony. The shifts were simply a part of an overall streamlining of DEM, they add.
But many in the county, particuarly builders and some attorneys, remain suspicious.
"If the transfers were caused by testimony given in a court case, Fairfax has taken a step back in terms of light years. If this is true, it is an invitation to future county employes to perjure themselves in court," said Samuel Finz, a former county official who is now chief executive officer of the Northern Virginia Builders Association.
"That is a serious administrative move," Finz said. "You are asking these sophisticated employes to testify one way or another. Depending on how you testify, you may be transferred to the dump," Finz said. "As a former county employe, I am worried," he said.
Many lawyers and developers contacted were reluctant for talk for attribution. Said one: "I wish I could help but I cannot jeopardize my cases that are pending in various stages of the process from preliminary site plan discussion to needing utility permits."
The personnel switches combined with a series of other major problems including controversial deferrals of specific projects for indefinite time periods, and increased involvement of elected officials in the details of final site plans and a reported inhouse scramble for political clout among those who make land use decisions all worry developers.
Builders with plans pending in various stages at DEM are currently unable to get questions answered as to the status of their projects. Several said they are worried they may lose out on the coming spring building season and questioned the timing of the shakeup which coincides with the beginning of what is traditionally a boom in applications.
Changes in personnel have put top land use decision makers totally out of the decision-making process, a move that sent shock waves through the development community. Several builders said they heard rumors of changes months ago but they had assumed that whatever conflict had existed had blown over.
Terrett, former head of DEM's design review division, has been transferred from his post as head of a department of more than 100 employes who make site decision plans to a job running a composting operation at the Lorton landfill. He has been a Fairfax employe for more than 14 years and will continue to draw his annual $63,000 salary.
Apparently, a special job has been created for Hendrickson who headed Terrett's site review branch and was a favorite among residential and commercial builders. Hendrickson will continue to be paid his $48,000 salary while he works to come up with methods to help solve the methane gas problems at the Lorton landfill.
"It is my opinion that the whole system broke down. We could not get anything approved. But the single best official they had over there was Oscar Hendrickson," said one commercial developer. "In terms of knowledge and detail, he was certainly the most respected. He was willing to be reasonable but yet not willing to give anything away."
A lawyer complained that those shifted were those who were not afraid to tell their supervisors when they disagreed with them.
"Hendrickson did not waffle when his supervisors pressured him," another developer said.
Finz said Terrett was the kind of employe "the county wants. You could call him with a problem and he would not promise to solve it but he would promise to work on it and call you back."
In the Occoquan trial Hendrickson testified -- and Terrett backed him up -- that it was standard practice for staff members to amend site plans after the board of supervisors had approved them, undercutting the county's position that zoning and land use were the sole perogative of the board.
William Smith, who until recently worked with Hendrickson, is getting a new job reportedly with DEM. Neither Terrett, Hendrickson nor Smith could be reached for comment.
There have been many other recent personnel changes recently in the office of comprehensive planning as well.
Philip Yates left his post several weeks ago as zoning administrator to join the engineering firm of Dewberry and Davis. Other staff members have been offered jobs outside the government but several are reluctant to leave, sources said. Secretaries within DEM are also being shifted to different slots, officials said.
The personnel changes, according to some county leaders, are part of an overall effort to improve the entire approval process. Others disagree, complaining that the changes were poorly handled and that those involved were given no advance notice of the possible changes.
Fairfax County Board Chairman Jack Herrity declined to comment on the possible changes on the implications of the actions. However, Herrity did say Yates' job change was not related to the other shifts.
A Circuit Court judge ruled that property owners involved in the case as plaintiffs were not bound by the down zoning but at the same time upheld the county's right to take the action in what was hailed at the time as "a smart political decision."