County, local groups at odds over redevelopment of 8800 Richmond Highway

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For nearly four hours last Thursday, speakers testified before the Fairfax County Planning Commission about what they think is best for the future of an eight-acre property located at 8800 Richmond Highway.

Many nearby residents and civic groups want the 8-acre lot, which is south of the Sacramento Center and north of Dogue Creek on the west side of Route 1, to be converted into a 43-unit townhouse development. Opponents of that plan prefer it be converted to park land or kept as private open space. And others, particularly members of the planning commission, wondered if there was a middle ground between those two positions.

The only thing everyone agreed on: The property needs a lot of TLC after nearly 50 years of being used for various commercial and light industrial enterprises.

I personally have lived near the property for 37 years,” said Judith Harbeck, who testified on behalf of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations in favor of the townhouse plan. “And for all that time it has been an embarrassment, a blight and an environmental disaster in every sense of the word.”

Ultimately, the planning commission deferred a decision on amending the county’s comprehensive plan to allow for denser residential development on the property until Sept. 13. The public can still offer feedback until then, and the planning commissioners themselves have a site visit scheduled for early August.

map of area

(Click to enlarge)

Redeveloping 8800 Richmond Highway — or even converting it to park land or improved private open space — has many challenges. Perhaps the biggest of those challenges: Almost the entire lot falls within the 100-year floodplain for Dogue Creek. The land is also located within an area designated by the county as an Environmental Quality Corridor (EQC) — a type of area the county comprehensive plan says can only be disturbed in “extraordinary circumstances.” On top those environmental circumstances, 8800 is also part of a Resource Protected Area (RPA).

Those issues were cited by the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning earlier this month when it released a report, in response to a request from the Board of Supervisors, saying it did not recommend amending the comprehensive plan to allow for townhome-density development on the site.

“[N]ew residential development that significantly encroaches into a floodplain and EQC and would require filling in a floodplain is contrary to long-established county policy and newly adopted [Embark] Plan recommendations for the Richmond Highway Corridor,” county staff said in the report.

That conclusion did not sit well with members of the MVCCA, nearby residents, the landowner and the prospective developer. Those parties contend that the county is being too rigid in its interpretation of guidelines laid out in the Embark Richmond Highway plan and other county rules on development. Development in a flood plain is not unheard of, and private investment in the property is the best way to improve the degraded environmental state of the site, supporters of the townhome plan said.

“This is not a situation where the environment is going to trump economic development and sound land planning, or land planning is going to trump the environment,“ said Mark Viani, a longtime Mount Vernon-area civic activist and co-chair of the MVCCA, who spoke at the hearing in his role as a representative for the prospective developer of the 8800 property, Stanley Martin Homes. “The solution, the way forward, is that they’ll have to work together.”

Mount Vernon area resident Peter Sitnik and his siblings own 8800 Richmond Highway. The Sitniks’ parents had owned most of the land since the early 1950s, and Peter Sitnik can recall the era when an amusement park operated on the property, complete with a steam locomotive and coal car that ran around a one-mile track.

Since then, the property has changed dramatically. Dogue Creek was re-routed at some point from its original flow, and the various industrial and commercial uses made a great deal of the surface area impervious. A large part of the original 35-acre property was given to the Fairfax County Park Authority in the 1990s, which then became Pole Road Park.

Sitnik said his family has been open to offers for the property for years, but none of those proposals were as serious as the townhouse redevelopment offered by Stanley Martin in 2014. The developer is aware of the site’s environmental challenges, and has said the townhouse project would incorporate modern stormwater management to the site and reduce the impervious surface by nearly 50 percent. The builder also plans to clean the commercial industrial debris from the site, fill in the floodplain to keep houses safe from weather events and donate three more acres of land to Pole Road Park.

Sitnik said he’s worried that if the current proposal doesn’t go through, the property will remain stuck in its current condition because other private developers and the county are not interested in buying the land.

This is the only buyer … in 60-some years who’s ever spent the time and money to get this far into the process, and who’s agreed to clean it up, to make it better,” Sitnik testified. 

Drawing of townhome community

An overhead image of the townhome community shared at the Planning Commission meeting. The Sacramento Center is at right.

Other supporters see the townhouse project as a major chance to improve the southern end of the 7.5 mile Richmond Highway corridor between the Beltway and Fort Belvoir. The southern end of the corridor has not seen the level of redevelopment that the rest of the Highway has in recent years, and residents testifying before the commission say a successful redevelopment of 8800 Richmond Highway could have major impact on improving the area overall.

“We see this project as transformative to the area, and it will be the start of the revitalization of the Woodlawn [Community Business Center],” said Karen Pohorylo, president of the Engleside Civic Association. 

Opponents of redeveloping the property, which included representatives from the Friends of Little Hunting Creek, the Friends of Accotink Creek, and the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, said no development at the site could adequately improve the environmental conditions around Dogue Creek.

Betsy Martin, president of the Friends of Little Hunting Creek, testified that a 43-townhome development did not meet the “extraordinary circumstances” threshold to allow for development in a flood plain and EQC.  She also said the development plan clashed with guidance adopted in the Embark amendment, and noted that it said 38 additional acres of parkland will be needed as the population of the corridor increases in the coming years.

This is exactly the sort of site that should be preserved and restored as open space, one of the ecological spines envisioned in the Embark Plan,” Martin said. 

The shortest, and perhaps bluntest, testimony of the night came from Philip Latasa of the Friends of Accotink Creek. Noting that county staff was worried about what precedent would be set by developing in the flood plain, Latasa said he was more worried about another precedent.

The precedent that would be established is to tell landowners that they can abuse and degrade protected areas to that point that anything will seem like an improvement, and then they can cash out,” Latasa said.

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