Vienna officials hope mediator can craft compromise on development plan

Vienna Town Council members have approved this proposed mixed-use project at 374-380 Maple Ave., W., which would build 37 condominiums on top of 7,500 square feet of retail space.

Vienna Town Council members, including two who had mounted the dais for the first time just three hours earlier, voted 5-2 July 1 to set a public hearing two weeks hence on possibly rescinding a major redevelopment decision made two weeks earlier.

At issue was the Council’s decision on June 17, by 5-2 super-majority vote, to approve plans by developer Dennis Rice, on behalf of by Red Investment LLC and MJW Maple LLC, to build 37 condominium units atop 7,500 square feet of retail at 374-380 Maple Ave., W. The four-story building would be a maximum of 54 feet tall.

To say the meeting was unusual understates the case. The proceedings began slightly before 8 p.m. as Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Brett Kassabian swore in returning Council member Howard Springsteen and newcomers Nisha Patel and Steve Potter for two-year terms beginning that day.

After the usual preliminaries of the invocation, Pledge of Allegiance, a couple of proclamations celebrating local groups, recognition of Scouts in attendance and remarks by Council members and the town manager, the Council agreed to move from last to second in the queue an agenda item about rescinding the development decision.

The Council quickly dispatched an item that updated the town’s motor-vehicle code and then, at the suggestion of Council member Douglas Noble, went into closed session for a brief powwow with Town Attorney Steven Briglia regarding the 374-380 Maple Ave., W., case.

The break was supposed to last 10 to 15 minutes, but stretched on about an hour longer, to the consternation of dozens of people in the Council chamber.

When the meeting resumed a few minutes before 10 p.m., Council member Pasha Majdi moved that the Council hold a joint public hearing with the Vienna Planning Commission on July 15 to consider rescinding and repealing the decision.

Majdi objected to the development’s planned narrowing of Wade Hampton Drive, S.W., from 36 feet to 32 and was not happy that the additional land freed up by that move was not being dedicated to open space.

Majdi, along with Springsteen, wrote a June 25 letter to Town Manager Mercury Payton to place an item on the July 1 meeting agenda for rescinding the decision.

“Our serious concerns about the traffic-safety issues are further heightened by the failure to notify the adjoining jurisdiction [Fairfax County] of the proposed rezoning and the proposed redesign of an intersection with a state highway,” they wrote. “Moreover, we are concerned about the zoning implications for replacing a commercial building with a predominantly residential building with significantly less commercial space in the Maple Avenue Commercial corridor.”

Payton and Mayor Laurie DiRocco also received a June 27 letter from Council member Carey Sienicki, whose term was set to expire three days later, stating the concerns expressed in the letter from Springsteen and Majdi were “generally broad and would be difficult to adequately address in a singular motion to rescind.”

“From my perspective, there were years worth of discussion, consideration and modifications with majority affirmative vote from Council, Board of Architectural Review, Planning Commission, after careful review of comment from Town Staff, Public and Applicant,” Sienicki wrote.

Majdi at the July 1 meeting cited numerous sections of town code to bolster his case for rescinding the vote, and said the earlier decision would not take effect until there was an official change to the town’s zoning map.

Majdi and Potter quoted from sections of the town code indicating why the development vote should be reconsidered, and Potter ran through a lengthy discourse, including a PowerPoint presentation, questioning the development’s provisions for deliveries, traffic flow, and pedestrian and vehicular safety.

Patel wanted the 9-foot-wide awning on the project’s Maple Avenue side pushed back more toward the building and questioned if the residential units facing Glen Avenue, S.W., could be stepped back in a tiered approach.

Council member Linda Colbert, who voted with the majority in the June 17 decision, said county officials had received proper notification regarding the rezoning. Council members could take up Potter’s recommendations when they amend the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning ordinance, she said. The Council temporarily suspended the MAC ordinance last September and recently extended the moratorium’s deadline to Nov. 15.

Majdi, Noble, Patel, Potter and Springsteen voted in favor of holding the July 15 public hearing, while DiRocco and Colbert voted nay.

Although voting with the majority, Noble said the developer’s project had evolved over time and had been responsive to the town’s comprehensive plan and MAC code. Noble also asked for a future discussion with the town attorney and  finance director how much money was available in the town’s legal reserve fund for the next year, in case of legal actions by the developer or community members.

DiRocco, who estimated about $30,000 was available for supplemental legal fees, worried that rescinding the vote might constitute a taking and potentially leave the town open to lawsuits.

“The idea of rescinding can be problematic,” she said. “That’s my concern.”

(Rice did not return an e-mail requesting comment.)

Majdi thanked fellow Council members for a “decorous conversation.”

“For folks in the audience who were expecting fire and brimstone, nope, not here,” he said. “We’re having  a thoughtful discussion. I think the points that have been made are quite reasonable.”

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