A vacant trailer and spray-painted “no parking” sign in Alexandria, VA, have long made the gravel lot where they’re perched look forgotten. But a plan to redevelop the 8-acre site at 8800 Richmond Highway — which sits squarely in the floodplain of a Potomac River tributary — is garnering plenty of attention and lively debate.
A Northern Virginia developer wants to build 43 townhomes on the property that is considered one of the thoroughfare’s biggest eyesores. Supporters say the project aligns with Fairfax County’s broader vision for redeveloping a more than 7-mile strip of the timeworn corridor.
But doing so would require exemptions from state and local laws intended to prevent flooding and protect water quality in the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. The project site cozies up to Dogue Creek, a flood-prone suburban stream that drains the parking lots and roofs of a 1980s-era neighborhood as well as military facilities. The creek flows into the Potomac near George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon estate.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Audubon Naturalist Society — groups that don’t typically get involved in smaller development disputes — are among a half-dozen regional groups opposed to the project, which they say would set a worrisome precedent in Virginia’s most populous county.
“We think there is a way to address and further revitalization as well as these environmental programs,” said Peggy Sanner, the CBF’s Virginia assistant director and senior attorney. “And that is to respect what’s in the [county’s] comprehensive plan, which is that you should not be building next to the stream valleys.”
Pete Sitnik, who inherited the property with his two siblings in 2008, said his family needs to sell the three parcels that make up the property, one of which carries an annual tax bill of about $18,500. He sees the townhomes as fitting with a broader vision for the corridor, one with higher-end residences that are able to support improved retail options. He said he’s willing to donate a portion of the property to the county, but giving it all away is not an option.
“Could you donate your 401(k) or your house to somebody, and have no other income?” asked Sitnik, who is 67.
Opponents of the project point to the recent severe flooding in Ellicott City, MD, and in Texas and North Carolina after massive storms as evidence of what’s at stake when municipalities build in floodplains. The water, they say, has to go somewhere, and stronger storms coupled with a rising sea level are already exacerbating flooding in streambeds.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smart Growth, said his organization supports the redevelopment of the area and its transition toward a greener, more walkable corridor. But building townhomes in a floodplain, he said, doesn’t fit with that vision.
“We have always been strongly supportive of redevelopment of parking lots as part of mixed-use development,” Schwartz said. “But part and parcel of this is the conservation of our streams and natural areas.”
In late October, the developer “indefinitely deferred” the project’s hearing with the county planning commission a day before it was scheduled to take place. But Mark Viani, an attorney representing the prospective builder, Stanley Martin Homes, said that day the project is still “very much alive.”
Besides, he said, “the issues we’re presenting are issues we’re going to confront up and down Richmond Highway.”
Viani would know. He is president of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corp., a public-private partnership focused on marketing the Embark Richmond Highway renewal project. The big-picture plan entails widening the road to make room for bus transit and building clusters of residential units to break up the sea of storefronts. It also calls for returning buried Potomac-bound streams to the surface and applying modern stormwater controls to reduce polluted runoff.
Viani said he is working with stakeholders to see how the proposal for 8800 Richmond Highway could be tweaked to address environmental concerns while still leaving enough room for a viable development.
Conversations with county officials already led to increasing the proposed width of a section of vegetated buffer between the townhomes and creek from 39 feet to 89 feet, Viani said. But that still falls short of the 100-foot buffer required by the county-enforced Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance, a regulation from which the project is seeking exemption.
Fairfax County has other provisions to deter development from occurring inside stream valleys and floodplains, and the county’s environmental staff have so far been unconvinced by the developer’s proposed alternatives, according to their reports. But the county’s Office of Community Revitalization and some members of the Board of Supervisors — as well as some civic associations — still see the project as an opportunity to improve a property that isn’t currently performing well at all, environmentally or economically.
“A lot of Richmond Highway has needs and challenges, and they will continue to be a negative for the Bay and the environment if we don’t do anything,” said County Supervisor Dan Storck (D-Mount Vernon), who represents the area and supports the project.
Backers of the project claim that it will deliver net environmental benefits for the creek and surrounding area. They say it will add streamside buffers where there aren’t any, reduce hardened surfaces on the site and curb polluted runoff heading into the stream.
Concerns about increased flooding could be partially alleviated by the state’s plans to replace a section of highway that floods regularly with an expansive bridge. That would create more room for the creek to flow in its natural channel.
But, even if that fix doesn’t come to fruition, Viani said, Stanley Martin plans to build up the land under the proposed townhomes to “raise it up out of the floodplain.” Some neighbors, worried that flood waters might be transferred to their downstream properties, are unconvinced.
The Sitnik family has owned the property since the 1950s — briefly running a small amusement park there — and has seen firsthand how unpredictable Dogue Creek can be. In the 1980s, the forested area where they had once run a small park train around a manmade lake became a wetland when development upstream changed the creek’s dynamics. Soon, the family donated the more than 15 soggy acres to the county.
The Sitniks and Stanley Martin Homes see development of a runoff-prone portion of the remaining acreage as both a solution and improvement.
“We pay a lot just to keep this property as is, and we can’t do that,” said Sitnik, who considers developing the commercial-zoned section of his property into a strip mall as his next-best option. If this project doesn’t pan out, “we’re going to have to take a low-ball development of some sort.”
The townhomes project is contingent on the county granting a rezoning request to allow up to eight residential dwelling units per acre. That request will likely face plenty of opposition if it proceeds, in part because of its broader implications: Developers wanting to build in floodplains elsewhere could cite this decision as a precedent.
Alan Rowsome, executive director of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, said turning the property into a park is still a better fit for the environment and the community. His organization is eager to broker a deal to that end, he said, but it would likely rely on the land being donated and finding remediation partners.
“Not only is this an important site ecologically, but it’s a bellwether site for many others like it,” Rowsome said. “It’s also about the future of other parcels where landowners and developers are looking eagerly to see whether this is going to be an opportunity.”