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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Annandale Acres seeks long-term solution to flooding problem

This ditch on Elizabeth Johnson' yard is supposed to capture stormwater runnoff.
Elizabeth Johnson has seen a lot of flooding since she moved to her house on Beverly Street in Annandale Acres in 1950. The county put in a rock-lined ditch on the corner of her lot decades ago, but it overflows with water during heavy rains.  She described how her basement floods at least once a year, as she flipped through a scrapbook with photos showing what looks like a torrential river flowing through her yard.

The flooding has gotten worse since a housing development was built off Degroff Court on the other side of Backlick Road several years ago, Johnson says.

Residents of Annandale Acres and the next-door community of Wilburdale are concerned that construction of another nine houses next to those homes will exacerbate the flooding.

Homeowners have repeatedly complained to county officials about the problem. “They say they are going to do this and they say they are going to do that, and nothing is ever accomplished,” Johnson says, while leafing through many copies of letters she’s sent to county officials.

“We’ve had a long history of flooding in the neighborhood,” confirms John Clark, vice president of the Annandale Acres Civic Association. “It’s getting worse and worse every year.” Water flows through a culvert under Backlick, and runs down Beverly and Calvert Streets. During flooding last fall caused by heavy rainfall, a car was swept off a road, he says.

The developer of those six houses on Degroff put in a dry pond, but it hasn’t adequately prevented flooding in Annandale Acres. Two separate solutions have been under discussion to mitigate the flooding problem: expanding that pond and putting in a larger conduit for managing runoff in Annandale Acres.

The dry pond at Degroff Court.
Despite the stormwater problems, the county approved a plan for an additional development on Degroff Court. Leaders of the Annandale Acres and Wilburdale communities complain that county officials failed to notify them about that impending development until it was already approved and are now refusing to work with them on a solution to mitigate the flooding.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a rezoning request Sept. 13, 2011, to rezone a 3.17-acre property from R-2 to PDH-5 to clear the way for UPIA LLC  to build nine single-family houses and incorporate them into a home owners association (HOA) with the six existing houses, which were built by another developer in 1998. A small house on the site will be torn down.

When the county considered the rezoning request, “the county made minimal effort to contact us,” Clark says. At the time, he says, the community had “a less active president” who didn’t call a community meeting to discuss the issue, and “we didn’t find out until it was too late.”

The meetings that Clark did attend “were all dog and pony shows after the fact,” he says. “They clearly were not designed to receive information, only evince the message: ‘We did outreach.’” He believes people likely to be vigorously opposed were deliberately not invited.

House on Degroff Court.
“We’ve repeatedly requested a meeting with Penny Gross on stormwater problems. They won’t meet with us,” added Kate Sriwardene, president of the Wilburdale Civic Association and land use chair of the Mason District Council.

A July 3 letter from Penny Gross to Clark acknowledges that a stormwater project for Annandale Acres has been under discussion since the late 1980s. A few years ago, the county offered to address the flooding problem by creating a larger conduit along Calvert Street, but one homeowner, Richard Singletary, refused to grant an easement, and still won’t cooperate.

Clark believes the existence of a single holdout has given the county an excuse for not taking further action. “It’s really obvious they are stalling,” he says.

Annandale Acres has urged the county to use its powers of eminent domain, but Gross’s July 3 letter says localities’ ability to use eminent domain in Virginia is very limited.

The conduit would be helpful but it wouldn’t completely solve the problem, Clark says. In fact, it would likely divert the water farther down to the Wilburdale community. And while UPIA agreed to enlarge the existing dry pond on Degroff Court, “the real solution is up on that hill,” he says.

He believes a larger pond will help, but thinks it should also collect stormwater runoff from the Heritage Village townhouses further up the hill.

Clark has asked the county to consider installing a 40 to 50-foot pipe to divert water from the townhouses to the new, larger pond, but says, while UPIA agreed to consider doing something like that, it is not allowed under the county’s facilities manual.

 “I’ve just been stonewalled on that completely. The county doesn’t seem to be listening to anyone,” Clark says. If this doesn’t happen, “what a discredit it would be to good governance if the county is so intractable as to be incapable of taking advantage of such a win-win opportunity as we have here. We will never get an opportunity like this again.”

UPIA has agreed to explore voluntary solutions after the site plan is approved, Gross notes in the July 3 letter, but adds, “it is important to understand that any effort by Fairfax County to impose requirements upon the UPIA developer beyond those identified in the county’s Public Facilities Manual would be deemed arbitrary and capricious and both unenforceable and subject to legal challenge.”

She says UPIA’s stormwater plans meet the county’s requirements and “will provide a proportional improvement within the watershed and reduce the peak flows and velocity of water coming off the 3.17-acre UPIA site for two-year and 10-year storms.”

The letter indicates that the developer of a three-acre site shouldn’t be responsible for addressing drainage concerns in a 72-acre drainage shed.

“I am astonished that Penny Gross admits that there have been stormwater issues since the 1980s,” says Sriwardene, “but instead of assisting existing neighborhoods, they have approved new developments which have put stress on already-compromised neighborhoods.”

She notes that the developer will likely be subject to lots of proffers, which will benefit the county, but “Annandale Acres is not going to be the recipient of any of those funds.”

“The county does not profit from fixing the stormwater mess they have created through infill and over-development,” Sriwardene says. “However, they do profit greatly from allowing rezoning and collecting on the money promised through proffers and through the added tax revenue gained by stuffing too many houses on a small piece of land.”


  1. I live in that area and I am not surprised that Penny is unwilling to do anything about stormwater. She is obviously in bed with the developers, while leaving our neighborhoods out to dry... literally.

    1. It would be great if you could provide proof of your claim. With enough evidence of collusion between the Supervisor and developers legal actions could be taken!

  2. Has anyone given though to inviting Sup. Gross to come out and see for herself what all are concerned over? It's worth a try, I would think.

  3. LOL... yeah, she knows full well and has been out. After all, she says herself that this has been a problem since the 1980s.

  4. Two questions:

    1) Can the blog post a copy of the July 3 letter that is referenced in the article? It would be helpful to read it in its entirety so that we learn more about the issues involved, and not just selected excerpts.

    2) Has the community talked or tried to persuade this guy Richard Singletary who is the lone hold out to a possible solution?

  5. Here's a link to the letter:

  6. Isnt this one of the cases where the developer can build by right, and a PUD exchanges slightly higher density for a better design? It's not clear to me that the PUD per se is worse in terms of storm water runoff. and of course proffers that benefit the county are part of what enables the county to pay for improvements.

    BTW, when was this Sriwardene chosen to head land use for Mason District? Is she addressing the pressing need to advance development to make the LRT corridor a walkable, urban community (the only way to really address development and sustainability in an aging, poorly planned inside the beltway community)?

  7. Anonymous,
    Unfortunately, a PDH is used by developers to squeeze as many houses on a small piece of property as possible. When you have more houses on clear cut land, than of course you are going to have much more stormwater runoff. The people who buy those new houses become responsible under a HOA to take care of the stormwater. Imagine how expensive that is.

    In Mason District, developers do not have to do creative smart growth designs because our County officials don't ask or require it. Our government officials especially in Mason District approve anything for the proffers irregardless of what the residents who surround the property want. The proffers that a developer pays the county don't go back into that new development and the infrastructure surrounding it, that money goes somewhere else like parks, schools, not stormwater abatement or roads.

    Mason District is so lucky to have "that person Swiwardene" on the Mason District Council because she understands what is going on in land use development in Mason District and Fairfax County as a whole. Mason District Council members appointed her because she cares and is smart.

    You better look around your house to see if there is any small piece of land there because developers will want to put as many homes, townhomes, apartments on it as possible. All they have to do is go to Mason District Supervisor and get her buy in. It's time for a vote of confidence on the Mason District Supervisor.

  8. To the previous commenter who said "its time for a vote of confidence on the Mason District Supervisor" - the Board of Supervisors elections were held just 8 months ago and Ms. Gross won with something like 60% (i think it was around that). If folks are upset then they need to show up at the polls on the election day - if not, you have no right to complain after the fact and then say there needs to be a 'vote of confidence.' Democracy is not a spectator's sport.

    1. I agree with you to a point. Sadly, we are all so busy and do not have the time to research the candidates and really know their records. People tend to just blindly vote for one party and/or for the incumbant without really even knowing the candidate.

      We are trying to make people realize that Mason District needs a change and some fresh ideas. Our district compared to surrounding districts appears neglected. There is trash in the streets, there are issues with overcrowding/illegal boarding houses (which if you have an HOA might not effect you), Bailey's and 7 Corners, look "ghetto", etc. Since Supervisor Gross has such a close relationship with developers, it makes one wonder if the goal is not to let some of the older communities with smaller houses go downhill, so that developers can come in and bulldoze them down to build larger, newer communities. This would mean higher real estate taxes for Mason Dist./Fairfax County, at the expense of the present homeowners taking a loss for their properties, which declined in value, because the county looked the other way when it came to enforcing zoning issues.

  9. Schools and parks seem like good things to me, and providing more developer money for them leads to more money for sewerage, etc.

    as for how smart the new developments are, there are clearly limits due to the zoning - we are talking a few houses on smaller lots, not Clarendon. In the cases that I have read about in more detail, the new proposal WAS better laid out that what was possible as of right.

    As for developers wanting to put in more THs and apts, I certainly hope so - Annandale currently a difficult place for walkers and cyclists due in part to lack of critical mass - and it lacks the density to support good transit service. Instead we have decaying low density apartments, ugly shopping centers - and a LRT that serves to move traffic from west of the beltway more than to create a walkable sustainable community. If I have any complaint about Penny, its that she seems to have neglected the transformation of Annandale into what the County plan calls for. I do not expect Swiwardene or her supporters to be more eager for that though.

  10. Mason District Council is certainly for smart growth and the folks I know are participating and voting in elections.

    It's true constituents get what they desire but it would be great if we could vote for the best person not just because they are a Democrat or Republican. Yes, we have 3 more years of our current supervisor that is why we need to speak out and work towards the betterment of our district.

    For example, the Walgreens Pharmacy going where Fuddruckers was. That property is right in the middle of Annandale. With any type of vision and leadership, the Annandale Revitalization group, along with the supervisor, could have asked developers to think about building a little town center--a walkable sustainable and attractive center. The owner of that property would have made even more money selling her property.

    There is no vision or interest in doing innovative/smart growth in our commercial areas. Instead developers are taking vacant land in the middle of 1950s neighborhoods and plopping down 29 houses where 8 should go. Fairfax's Comprehensive Plan clearly states new development in residential areas should be consistent with the surrounding neighborhood. We all need to get more involved, speak out, and care about our neighbors. We actually want the same thing for our district!

  11. I'm not sure what the supervisor could have done about the fuddruckers site - Id be interested to hear a discussion of that, nad of what Mason Dist council pushed for. That you say a "little town center" does not give me confidence - to make it economically viable, and to move us where we need to get to, we need some signficant height.

    As for the Comp Plan on consistent residential areas - they basically wimped out, presumably to avoid political resistance to the Comp Plan. Certainly higher density in the nabes would do more to support density in the commercial core, transit, etc. I do not see why SFHs on quarter acre lots need to be privileged over SFHs on smaller lots. Those 1950s houses are the epitome of boring suburbia, and their profusion leads to things being to spread out to be walkable. Theres a place in the county for such areas, but this area, inside the beltway, with a need to redevelop, deserves a better vision. I accept that the comprehensive plan is as written (i am a realist) but when a developer comes in with a PUD thats better laid out, and somewhat denser then the as of right zoning (and that as of right zoning will also mean more units, more runoff, etc which people seem to be ignoring) I think its reasonable to do the PUD - unless you are commited to keeping Annandale as much like 1950s suburbia as possible.

  12. If a developer came in with a better vision and layout plan that would certainly be something to consider and basically that's what the PDH-type development is supposed to do--be innovative. Unfortunately, the county does not make developers do that--all developers do is come in with as much density as they can get away with for more profit. The new development gets some benches and a tree on a little piece of designated green space. After the development is built the developers are gone and residents are left with maintaing their private road (what PDHs allow) and their stormwater facility (both unbelievably expensive). Our county and zoning officials go along with the developer and nothing is required more of the developer. The Comprehensive Plan is supposed to protect established communities so that something totally inconsistent is not built. The Comprehensive Plan is ignored constantly throughout Fairfax County. Old established neighborhoods from the 50s should be allowed to stay and not be thrown aside when new ideas come into fashion. Have you ever been to Europe? Yes, I'm for historical preservation.

    All the property in the Annandale commercial district is privately owned. That is why it is up to the County leaders, business owners and citizen organizations to negotiate with the property owners to develop a mixed use style center. It can be done if there is the will.

  13. I have to strongly disagree about with the statement about "those 1950s houses are the epitome of boring suburbia." I live in one of those boring suburbia homes and enjoy it. I have great neighbors who get out and assist each other. There is nothing boring about our homes. I find your comment to be offensive to those of us who love our home and their location.

    Over developing Annandale is far from the answer we need for inside the beltway. Annandale has so much history and if you took the time to learn some of our history you also would understand why Annandale is not just a place inside the beltway. Go to the Little White Church at Annandale United Methodist Church when it is open and take a tour and learn about the history of Annandale it really is amazing.

  14. So FFX County has been trying to rezone this area to a higher density but the homeowners in the area successfully and consistently beat it back. Now new development nearby is causing major problems for that same neighborhood and FFX County doesn't seem interested in solving the problem.

    In hopes that people living there will sell off ... to those amenable to rezoning and redevelopment.