Land-Use Group Holds Supervisor’s Feet to the Fire

Land-Use Group Holds Supervisor’s Feet to the Fire

Committee and MWAA explain their opposition to Agape plan.

Map showing how close Agape’s housing project is to Dulles International Airport.

Map showing how close Agape’s housing project is to Dulles International Airport.

    David Mould
By Bonnie Hobbs 

It’s one thing to deliberately misrepresent a group’s opinion about a project and another to use that opinion to help sway a vote. Yet that’s what Supervisor Kathy Smith (D-Sully) did last week prior to the Board of Supervisors’ approval of Agape’s housing project in her district.

That group – the Joint Sully District Council of Citizens Assns. (SDC) and West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee – was incensed about it. And its members are letting Smith and her colleagues know. 

In a letter emailed Sunday, March 24, to Board Chairman Jeff McKay – who repeated Smith’s erroneous statement before the vote was taken – the group said her comment indicating the committee approved of this project “was not an accurate statement of the committee’s position.” 

Submitted by SDC Land Use and Transportation Chair Jeff Parnes and WFCCA President Steve Chulick, the letter explained that the Committee, comprised of citizen volunteers, “devotes its efforts to improving Fairfax County through the evaluation of development proposals and specific suggestions for improvement, or at times, justification for denial.” 

“It is difficult enough to keep citizens engaged in the Fairfax County land-use process,” it continued. “When the committee’s contributions are distorted and ignored, it reinforces the perception that citizen input is meaningless, and the Board is not interested.   

“When the committee’s position on an application is misrepresented to justify a controversial approval, the process suffers, and the value of citizen engagement is further diminished. In the future, we would hope this type of mischaracterization would not be repeated [and] that constructive citizen engagement in the process would be welcomed.”

Indeed, after that March 19 Board meeting, committee member Jay Johnston lamented that “over the past several years now, Supervisor Smith has continued to ignore the concerns of the [joint land-use committee]. And now with the Agape rezoning and special-exception application, she clearly misstated, to say we approved when, actually, we have clear concerns.”

“This has been an ongoing battle with the Supervisor, and especially disconcerting with regard to residential construction in [Chantilly’s] Land Unit J – which is purely in Sully and mostly under the noise contours provided by Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA),” continued Johnston. “Supervisor Smith does not believe the latest noise contours from 2019 should serve as a warning to deter developers from building in these areas. 

“This is evident by her presentation of and ultimate requests for approval of the applications for residential housing around the Wegmans shopping center at Elm Street, the Boulevards, Ellipse at Westfields, and Stonebrook. I am surprised that we are still not doing the right thing by implementing the 2019 Noise Contours and, instead, continue putting future children and their families at risk. It is time for the Board of Supervisors to stand up and do the right thing by future residents.”

Also in response to Smith’s misleading statement, WFCCA President Stephen Chulick, said, “This is unconscionable. By now, Kathy must be very aware of our concerns about the county’s failure to adopt MWAA’s updated noise contours and our objections to virtually every residential development in Westfields.”

David Mould, MWAA vice president, Communications and Government Affairs, weighed in as well on the issue of allowing homes to be built in areas MWAA deems too noisy for residents. And while the majority of Dulles Airport’s 2023 airplane-noise complaints came from Loudoun County’s Birchwood/Brambleton neighborhood, he said people living in homes built in Chantilly’s notorious Land Unit J area also made their feelings known.

“In Fairfax County, communities south of Route 50, both new and older residential, submitted 495 complaints,” said Mould. “We expect that number to rise substantially when people start moving into the new communities that have been approved for construction in high-noise areas.” 

In fact, he added, “Just south of Route 50, one new development is in line with Runway 01-R. In this community [Commonwealth Place at Westfields], just north of the Wegmans on Newbrook Drive in Chantilly, there is one resident who submitted 191 aircraft noise complaints in 2023.” 

During the pandemic – when residents’ abilities to directly comment to the supervisors on local construction proposals was severely hampered by virtual meetings – the supervisors approved for construction nearly 1,000 homes under the flight paths in Land Unit J. Also in 2020, when the Board had the chance to adopt MWAA’s updated, 2019 aircraft-noise contours data for that area, it chose not to. 

Instead, during the July 21, 2020, meeting of its Land-Use Policy Committee – chaired by Smith, in whose district all those new homes would be built – the supervisors decided to keep using the data from 1993. That antiquated noise-contour data is now 31 years old; but still, Smith and the Board persist. 

And the continuing push to approve more and more housing projects near the airport troubles MWAA. 

“For decades, people didn’t build in these areas,” said Mould. “Dulles is the only major airport on the East Coast with room to grow, and it’s in a great position to contribute to the Northern Virginia economy. But when all the other already-approved residential projects in the Land Unit J area [become occupied], we anticipate the noise complaints will sharply increase, just as they did in Birchwood/Brambleton.”

Regarding Agape’s project, Mould stressed that the developer’s noise study showing a 54 dba level at the building site was done over 24 hours from March 4-5, 2022 – when fewer planes were flying because of the pandemic. At that time, said Mould, “Dulles had a total of 599 flight operations (takeoffs and landings). Today, Dulles is averaging about 820 daily operations.”

Furthermore, he noted, “That study was conducted on a Friday through Saturday, and weekends are traditionally slower days for air traffic. So it doesn’t represent the current reality – or future projections – of Dulles air traffic. 

“In addition, these studies are normally conducted over a much-longer period of time, because just studying one, 24-hour period doesn’t give a complete and accurate picture of future noise levels or of what residents in this area would typically experience.”

In an email sent to the Board before its March 19 meeting, the citizen’s land-use committee expressed its concerns about Agape’s proposal, and noise was among them. “The noise from aircraft overflights will lessen residents’ enjoyment of any outdoor spaces and activities,” wrote the committee. It also wondered if potential residents would really have a “clear understanding” of just how noisy it would be.

“Visiting the facility and living there are two completely different matters, and sound tolerance decreases with time,” the committee said. “We question what landscaping can be provided to soften sound reverberations in these outdoor recreation areas.”

The committee also recommended a pedestrian connection from Centerview Drive to Centreville Road to give residents a shorter, more direct route to the Sully Plaza shopping center. And it suggested marking a bike lane along Thunderbolt Place so seniors wouldn’t have to share the road right-of-way with motorists. It said the facility needed more parking for staff, visitors and residents with their own vehicles. And it recommended a communal dining area for residents’ socialization, plus indoor amenities, such as pool tables and darts, for additional recreation.

Now, the Board has another email from the land-use committee, calling out Smith’s action at last week’s meeting. And two county residents are among those glad the committee isn’t letting it go unnoticed.

“Smith rarely acknowledges the committee’s hard work, concerns and recommendations, as it is,” said Sheila Dunheimer. “Her outright misrepresentation is definitely a ‘red line’ that should not be tolerated.”

“Clearly, the joint committee had many concerns,” added Jehanne Arslan. “Smith’s misrepresentation is a regrettable lapse which ultimately reflects badly upon the entire Board.”