A controversial proposal to build $450,000 to $500,000 homes in the McLean neighborhood not far from Tysons Corner apparently has created a new definition of moderately priced housing for Fairfax and affluent McLean.
A proposal to build 14 luxury traditional homes in a cluster development on land planned for one to two houses per acre has generated a hornet's nest of verbal opposition from owners of million-dollar homes in the same neighborhood. The proposed land-use change involves 8.5 acres along Lewinsville Road at the intersection of Windy Hill Road, east of the Route 123 and Lewinsville Road interchange.
Critics charged that the proposed development, on land that includes the offices of a longtime McLean pediatrician, will lead to the downfall of an entire section of McLean. Critics oppose building 14 houses in a cluster development and have said the price range is moderate.
Fairfax County Planning Commission Chairman George Lilly said the debate over the "moderate" homes has given "new meaning" to the definition of moderately priced housing in Fairfax County. Few real estate agents in the McLean area consider a $450,000 house to be a moderate-priced dwelling.
The proposal by developer James Driscoll includes land he owns and approximately six acres owned by Dr. Arthur Metzger, who has practiced medicine in a small house on the site for many years. Driscoll and Metzger are asking Fairfax to approve a cluster development in a PDH (Planned Development Housing) category.
The original application had called for 17 homes on the site, but "we have cut that to 14," said attorney Martin Walsh. The site is directly across Lewinsville Road from the main entrance to the Planning Research Corp. facility that is part of a major office park wedged between Lewinsville Road and the Dulles toll road.
The land is minutes from Tysons Corner via Route 123 and Lewinsville Road.
After a bitter public hearing that ran into early morning hours, the Fairfax County Planning Commission last week recommended that the board of supervisors approve the proposal.
Metzger said he plans to renovate an existing historic two-story white house that now sits on the property next to the small house he uses for a doctor's office. Although the old house is not on any historic register, it was built in the 1790s.
Walsh, who represents the landowners, told the planning commission that denial of the proposal would "smack of exclusionary zoning. I don't think it's best for Fairfax or McLean" to have only "homes for folks who can afford million-dollar houses."
Several residents of the area, including some of Fairfax County's well-known developers, complained that allowing the $450,000 homes to be built would be the beginning of the end of some of the county's nicest affluent neighborhoods where large lots still exist.
Lilly said that a large Fairfax County government center, a private school and three major office buildings along with other land planned for development at three homes per acre were all already part of the area. In addition, the site is near the Beltway. Residents of the area complained about noise levels to commissioners and said development of the eight acres would do away with part of a noise buffer that now protects their homes.
However, Carlos Montenegro of the Fairfax County planning staff said county studies indicated the trees that would be removed as part of the development really do not protect existing neighborhoods from noise levels and suggested that a study of noise generated by roads in the area be done. He said noise problems would have to be dealt with at the roadside, not on the property.
Lilly said, "There is a basic compatability" with the rest of the neighborhood. Until a few years ago, the Metzger/Driscoll land was planned for construction of homes at two to three dwelling units per acre. That is the same designation under which nearby McLean Knolls, a subdivision where prices now hover between $240,000 and $260,000, was developed.
The development proposal calls for preserving a heavily wooded Environmental Quality Corridor (EQC) that the county considers critical to the area. That EQC fronts on Lewinsville Road. However, some area homeowners said they would rather have homes in the EQC than along Windy Hill Road.
Lynda O'Bryan, a speaker for the opposition, presented a slide show of some of the more expensive homes in the area. O'Bryan operates a profit-making preschool abutting the Metzger property along Lewinsville Road.
She said approval of the housing development "would set a precedent from which the neighborhood could never recover. It would open a floodgate of zoning cases in the Windy Hill area," she said. She said homes in Elmwood Estates, a subdivision of large established homes selling from $225,000 to $500,000, would be jeopardized even though that neighborhood is not directly attached in any way to the proposed property. No residents of Elmwood Estates showed up to support or oppose the development.
However, residents of McLean Station, a nearby neighborhood of contemporary $275,000 to $350,000 homes that is in the final stages of build-out, filed a letter supporting the proposed development, attorney Walsh said.
But O'Bryan warned that approval would threaten all R-1 zoning in McLean and "throughout the county."
"Denial of this application is absolutely necessary," O'Bryan said.
Tom Hirst, a developer in Fairfax for many years, recently built himself a house in the area worth more than $1 million. His home is close to the entrance to the present driveway to the Metzger office and what will be the entrance to the proposed development.
Hirst has asked Fairfax to force the developer to provide a 100-foot buffer of trees on the development site to protect his home from the planned development even though his home is across the street from the project. Hirst's home includes a sports complex with a tennis court and swimming pool built in the front and side yards of his house, close to what will be the entrance to the proposed new development. The only trees buffering those tennis courts and pool from Windy Hill Road, small pines, were planted in recent months, county officials said. Hirst and O'Bryan have asked Fairfax to force developers to keep a row of hemlocks that have existed on the Metzger property for many years. However, the county arborist has said the trees are diseased, a county official explained.
Hirst asked commissioners to help preserve the "quality of life" near his home. He said the proposed development represents a "total and gross disregard" for what he called the "exceptional design" in the expensive new contemporary homes along Windy Hill.
Proponents and some county officials said Hirst wants Metzger to provide the buffer for Hirst's house on Metzger's land.
"We proposed a 100-foot buffer along Windy Hill . At least, if he were going to rape it the land , let him do it behind the trees," Hirst said, referring to grading proposed by the developer.
Hirst's home sits in the bright sun. There are few trees. Opponents of the new development said Hirst's home was built in a field, but a 1980 aerial photo of the site on file at a county office shows some woods on the site.
Attorney Walsh said developers would have to meet county grading standards to develop the project.
Elsworth Knudsen, another Windy Hill Road resident and developer, said he had tried to buy the land himself. Metzger later said those offers were always far below market value.
Knudsen, who identified himself as an agent with Better Homes Realty, said he "gets 20 calls a week from people who can afford $200,000 lots and million-dollar homes. I would build large homes on large lots, and I'd make as much money as the applicant," Knudsen said.
Fran DeLucia, a resident of McLean Knolls subdivision, said, "This would be a Tysons II on a small scale. Development at Tysons Corner has to be stopped somewhere. What you do on this has great precedent -setting potential ," DeLucia said.
The Fairfax Board of Supervisors this week was scheduled to vote on the proposal, but Supervisor Nancy Falck deferred the project public hearing until 2:30 p.m. June 10.
Meanwhile, area residents who are against the proposal produced their own set of conditions, which they want developers to agree to before going to hearing. But developers already have agreed to a list of conditions that they have proposed to the county.
The plannng staff had recommended denial of the application without certain conditions being met. The only planning commission member voting against the proposal was commission member John Thillmann, who voiced concern over possible problems with steep slopes on the site. However, Walsh said most of those steep slopes are within the environmental quality corridor and other areas on the site that will be maintained rather than built upon.