The tattered field near Dogue Creek in Northern Virginia has been many things over the decades — amusement park, Army tank staging ground, recreational campground and home to several of the gritty businesses that have long defined that stretch of Richmond Highway.
Now, the eight-acre site is at the center of a bitter debate over how to revamp blighted, empty properties in areas that are prone to flooding, amid growing concerns about climate change.
Last week, the Fairfax County Planning Commission indefinitely deferred consideration of a proposal to build 43 townhouses on the property, after the developer sought more time to address environmental worries.
Proponents see the project as a way to kick-start a larger redevelopment effort that could grow to include 13,000 homes, plus hotels, restaurants and parks, in a long-struggling neighborhood at the foot of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
But with violent rainstorms posing an increasing hazard to communities susceptible to flooding, critics argue that the development — in the middle of a 100-year flood plain — would put downstream neighbors at greater risk and set a dangerous legal precedent.
The proposal would require the county to amend its planning guidelines for the property. It has divided neighbors and even government agencies in Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction, with some critics noting that key players in the townhouse project are involved with influential civic groups that have given it their blessing.
“There is no pure right or wrong to this,” said County Supervisor Daniel G. Storck (D-Mount Vernon), who represents the area and supports the development but says he is worried about environmental impacts. “We need to do something to address the property and to mitigate the impact of its poor use for the last 50-plus years.”
The land, near a run-down shopping plaza, a hotel and a federal immigration processing center, has been owned since 1953 by the Sitnik family. Earlier this year, the county forced out several businesses that were illegally renting space, leaving a small welding shop, rusty rails from an old amusement-park ride and an aging family-owned boat. Homeless people frequently camp overnight near the Dogue Creek banks.
Fairfax redevelopment officials have tried for years to spark interest in the site. But as with other nearby, formerly industrial properties, developers were wary about the cleanup costs and the lack of surrounding restaurants or other amenities.
After the county approved a broader redevelopment plan for the area in March that is meant to complement a state road-widening plan for Richmond Highway — which includes bus rapid transit lanes and, eventually, a new Metrorail station — Stanley Martin Homes decided the timing was finally right.
The Reston-based company proposed building the townhouses on a two-acre footprint that sits at least 100 feet from the creek bed, adding four private streets with concrete sidewalks, filling in the area with better soil, planting trees and installing a storm-water management system.
The company also said it will repair the creek, which veers away from its original path just before entering into the culvert that channels the water under Richmond Highway. This new path has eaten into the creek bank, pulling sediment and whatever else washes off the Sitnik property toward the Potomac River, county officials say.
On the eve of an Oct. 24 public hearing before the county planning commission, Stanley Martin asked for more time to come up with other options.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to the property,” said Mark Viani, a land-use lawyer working with the company. While the developer is not withdrawing its plan, he said, “there may be an opportunity to do something more special there.”
Elizabeth Hagg, deputy director of the county’s Office of Community Revitalization, said the property “is not an easy site.” Her agency supports the proposal as part of its larger Mount Vernon vision, in part because residents of the townhouses would support retail and transit.
Fairfax’s planning department — joined by a host of neighbors, environmental groups and even Army officials at nearby Fort Belvoir — says the land, which is subject to various environmental protections, should be kept as open space.
County planners note the potential for motor oil and other pollutants to run from a residential development into the 8½ -mile creek, which stretches south from Kingstowne Lake in the Franconia area to the Potomac River, and for nearby wildlife and vegetation to be damaged.
Mostly, opponents are concerned about the legal precedent that would be set if the county agreed to allow residential development in one of its flood plains.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, cited last year’s flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey and a 2004 flood in Richmond as proof of increasing storm risks in metropolitan areas. Those risks, he said, should play a larger role in development decisions.
If the project goes forward, “it would be very difficult for the county to legally deny projects in flood-plain areas in other parts of the county,” he said. “This is in a 100-year flood plain, but we know we’re seeing 500- and even 1,000-year storms hitting the region now.”
Fairfax has 21,364 acres of land designated as flood plains, of which 9,500 acres are privately owned and 73 acres lie in areas targeted for revitalization.
The controversy has grown bitter, with opponents pointing out that two civic associations that endorsed the townhouse project have board members who stand to profit if it is approved.
Viani, the land-use attorney, serves on the board of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corp. and previously co-chaired the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations. Katherine Ward, a real estate agent who brokered the land purchase agreement, recently co-chaired the council, and Pete Sitnik, one of the landowners, chairs its transportation committee.
Their roles with those groups “sort of distorted the debate,” said Elizabeth Martin, who belongs to a smaller homeowners association that supported the project after a contentious vote. The association later complained to the Mount Vernon group about the potential conflicts of interest.
Viani, Ward and Sitnik all said they were upfront about their roles in the project and did not vote on their organizations’ endorsements. Ward said she became involved in the effort because she wanted to do something about a property that has long aggravated local residents.
“The money doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “I’d just like to see that piece of garbage improved.”
Sitnik and his siblings inherited the property in 2010, shortly after their mother died, he said. Since then, they’ve had an annual tax bill of $18,500, which is harder to pay because of the loss of rent money from the businesses that were forced to leave.
“We need this project to go forward,” Sitnik said. “We’re caught in a bad situation.”
Local neighbors, on both sides of the issue, feel the same way.
Brian Leclair, 41, who lives a short walk from the site, said the area was hit hard by foreclosures a decade ago and, lately, has seen a rise in crime.
“A proposed townhouse community like this can really do a world of good,” Leclair said. “It could bring in a nicer caliber of people to the neighborhood.”
Less than a quarter-mile away, Randy Tink, 41, stared at the portion of Dogue Creek that runs behind his home — downstream from the proposed development — and worried about the next heavy rain.
Portions of his neighborhood have flooded in recent years, he and other neighbors said, though the problem has not been severe enough to damage any homes.
“It comes up as high as I ever want it to go,” Tink said about the creek. “I definitely don’t need the situation to be disturbed any more than it is.”