Tensions flare at 6 hour Vienna Town Council public hearing on 380 Maple Avenue

Michael Dranove Politics, Tysons Update

Voices were raised and hands were gestured at the Vienna Town Council’s unprecedented July 15th public hearing on a proposed/already approved mixed-use development at 380 Maple Avenue.

The topic of the night’s heated discussion was a proposal put forward by Councilmember Pasha Majdi on July 1st to rescind the Vienna Town Council’s June 17th approval of a mixed-use development consisting of 38 condos, 7500 square feet of retail, and 125 parking spaces at 380 Maple Avenue. The act of rescinding an already approved Town Council decision is most likely unprecedented, but Majdi argued that on the way towards approving 380 Maple the Council violated a number of town, county, and state codes, and had ignored recommendations in the town’s Comprehensive Plan.  Despite the technicalities cited by the plan’s detractors, clearly underpinning the night’s debate were unspoken differences on density regulations within the Town.

Irresponsible

The idea that a decision of the Town Council could be rescinded motivated many local residents to show up to the meeting to express their concern.  Majdi, no doubt aware that he was in for hours of antagonistic speakers, attempted to head off residents’ concerns by making a statement before public comment began.  However, he was cut short by Mayor Laurie DiRocco who believed that he should wait until public comment had finished before speaking.

As Majdi expected, during the public hearing a slew of residents and representatives of business associations came forward to express their opposition to the idea that approval for 380 Maple could be rescinded after it had already been approved. Commenters described the Council’s actions as “irresponsible,” and setting a “horrible precedent.”

Among the last to speak was the lead developer of the project, Dennis Rice.  Rice, who sat through the public comment session glaring noticeably in the direction of Majdi, chided Councilmembers opposing the development, who he claimed based their criticisms of his project on misunderstandings.  “These people really need to look at the plans…I offered many times to meet with individual councilmembers and answer any questions that I could explain, I was never taken up by certain [members].”

After Rice’s testimony, the Planning Commission took the floor, and again recommended that the Council go through with the development, with Chairman Michael Gelb stating, “this is something that I’m pretty sure has never happened in Vienna, I don’t even know if there’s much precedent across the Commonwealth of Virginia.  There is no mention of rescission in our Town Code…it’s questionable whether or not the Town Council even has the authority to rezone it…right now, it really feels to me, like this is an attempt…to change the laws and find a way to create new rules in the middle of a process to change an outcome that you just didn’t like”

Fractured Tensions

Following this, Council retook the floor, and entered into a debate that saw its worst internal squabbling in memory.  Tensions ran high, and Majdi in particular was visibly furious after being further rebuked by Mayor DiRocco for what she saw as playing too loose with Council rules.

In the end, fans of simplicity and easy to read articles were dismayed when the Council moved to again table a decision on the issue and instead request that Rice make minor adjustments to his proposal, to which Rice agreed.  The Council will revisit the proposal at a subsequent meeting, at which it will likely sign-off on it once and for all.

Although conservative, self-styled “responsible”, elements on the Council couched their opposition to the development in terms of technical violations, at its heart, the night’s debate almost certainly revolved around Vienna’s never-ending density and height questions.  Factions on the Council have emerged, with Councilmembers Majdi, Springsteen, Patel, and Potter determined to avoid the changes that have transformed neighboring communities throughout Fairfax County.  Thus far, Vienna has managed to mostly resist these changes, however, with rising demand for housing, and supply relatively stagnant, it remains to be seen if the Town can withstand the inertia.