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July 12, 2017

Warrenton council OKs large mixed-use project

It’s been a long haul. I’m very happy, but I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I’m taking 30 days off.
— Mike Forsten, project landowner
Public Hearing
• Topic: Rezoning application for mixed-use development of 31.4 acres between Walker Drive and Eastern Bypass in Warrenton.

• When: 7 p.m. Thursday, July 11.

• Agency: Warrenton Town Council.

• Where: Town Hall, 18 Court St.

• Landowners: Mike Forsten, Bill and Bob Springer and Walt Hitchcock.

• Topics: Affordable housing, jobs, need for additional retail space, economic development, entertainment uses, traffic, noise, water and sewer capacity, public safety, project’s potential conflict with adjacent residential neighborhoods.

• Length: About two hours, excluding presentations by town staff and landowners’ attorney.

• Speakers: 53 citizens, with 30 opposed and 22 who favored the application; one took no position.

• Details: Project calls for entertainment uses, including a possible multiscreen movie theater and bowling alley, restaurants, shops, offices, 40 condominiums and 76 apartments. The council Tuesday rezoned the land from industrial to industrial planning unit development. That allows the residential units and gives the developer greater flexibility.

• Next: Landowners/developers must get administrative approval of site, master and construction plans, variety of permits.
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Staff Journalist
As expected, Warrenton’s Town Council on Tuesday night approved a controversial mixed-use development proposal along Walker Drive.

After a nearly two-hour public hearing, the council voted, 6-1, in support of the 31.4-acre project, which calls for offices, shops, restaurants, 76 apartments, 40 condominiums and entertainment businesses that could include a multi-screen movie theater and a bowling alley.

Councilman Sean Polster (At-large) opposed the rezoning — among the largest in town history.

Fifty-three citizens people spoke at the hearing in Town Hall.

Thirty spoke against and 22 in support of the application. One speaker took no position on the project.

Citizens, the applicants and town officials packed the council chamber, which can accommodate up to 95, according to the fire code. More than 50 waited outside Town Hall, where the staff set up two loudspeakers so they could listen to the proceedings.

Landowners Mike Forsten, Bob and Bill Springer and Walt Hitchcock submitted the application to the town staff more than a year ago.

They or their representatives since have met with citizens, the staff, the town planning commission and the town council to address a range of issues related to the complicated proposal.

“It’s been a long haul,” Mr. Forsten said Tuesday night after the council’s decision. “I’m very happy, but I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I’m taking 30 days off.”

Advocates believe the project will provide much-needed and convenient entertainment options, affordable housing opportunities, jobs and tax revenue to help to support public services.

They also stressed that the rezoning application allows the town to obtain — from the landowners — transportation, parks and recreation and public safety contributions that otherwise would be unavailable if the property developed according to by-right, industrial zoning.

To help offset the project’s effect on public services, the landowners will provide:

• $300,000 toward the installation of a traffic signal or roundabout at Walker Drive and East Lee Street.

• Construction of a roundabout at the project’s Walker Drive entrance.

• $100,000 toward the installation of a traffic signal on Meetze Road at the top of the northbound bypass exit.

• $40,000 toward construction of an interconnecting trails system near the project site.

• $40,000 for town police and fire and rescue services.

Opponents argue the project means congestion, crime, noise and uses that will spoil Warrenton’s small-town “charm” and nearby residential communities.

To the detriment of taxpayers, they also worry the town ultimately will be unable to provide adequate water and sewer service to accommodate the project.

Naysayers also note the agreement fails to guarantee a movie theater and a bowling alley, which the landowners initially highlighted as key components of the project.

By a 6-1 vote, Warrenton’s planning commission on Feb. 21 recommended denial of the project, partly because the proposal appeared unclear, left many unanswered questions and lacked guarantees that it would be developed as proposed.

Jessica Vermillion, who supports the project, believes Warrenton seriously lacks entertainment options.

“There’s nothing to do, other than go to the bar and drink, which gets old,” Ms. Vermillion, a 28-year Warrenton resident, told the town council Tuesday night. “Any kind of development, any kind of entertainment — a movie theater isn’t really the big thing.

“A bowling alley, pool hall – anything to do at 9 o’clock on a Friday night, besides going out and drinking, is something this town needs.”

Like others, Darren Smith of Marshall would prefer to spend his time and money bowling or seeing a movie in Fauquier, for example, rather than in Prince William County.

“I think projects like this would be great for this community,” Mr. Smith said. “I would much rather spend my entertainment dollars here and keep them in the county.”

Through design and other controls, the rezoning process gives the town “some influence on how this is developed . . . to help mold what we would like to see here, to something that could be attractive that could be a gateway here,” he added.

Warrenton lawyer Tom Ross, who moved to Fauquier 35 years ago, considers “change” healthy.

“I’ve seen lots of people — like you have — that don’t want change,” Mr. Ross said. “Thank goodness things have changed. We’re thrilled about it. And, I think it needs to continue to change.

“I think this (project) means commerce, this means growth. If you don’t grow, you die. Your streets roll up and your business goes elsewhere.”

Teresa and David Piccassi and their seven children live of Walker Drive, across from the development site.

Her older children and their friends find plenty of ways to amuse themselves, Mrs. Piccassi said.

Among other things, they walk and bike to Main Street, visit shops and use the Warrenton Branch Greenway.

Objecting to the proposal, Mrs. Piccassi said: “Obviously, my children don’t have any trouble finding entertainment in Warrenton. This is what we wanted for our children when we moved to Warrenton 17 years ago. And, so far, it’s been a dream come true.”

The Walker Drive proposal would destroy that dream, she suggested. It would “take away revenue from our struggling and beloved Main Street” and “bring Centreville right across from the street where my children play.”

The project allows up to 55,967 square feet of retail space.

Pat Tucker of Warrenton regards that as excessive and unnecessary.

By her count, Warrenton soon could have up to 25 vacant storefronts, including as many as eight on Main Street and the rest in town shopping centers, Ms. Tucker said.

“I’m not sure why more retail is important,” the Falmouth Street resident added. “We need to make the most of what is already here.”

The council discussed the proposal for about 10 minutes before voting.

“I think it’s a worthwhile project,” said Councilman Bob Kravetz (Ward 4), who made the motion for approval. “I’m confident the applicants will do a top-notch job on whatever they do. And, I’m very supportive of the application.”

“I believe that this project is an opportunity for us to see some change in this town that is long overdue,” Councilman Kevin Carter (Ward 5) said. “The Forstens and the other investors, I congratulate them for the courage and also for risking your capital to help the community. And, I hope you do make some profit.”

The landowners have agreed to reserve land for seven years for the construction of a movie theater, bowling alley or other types of entertainment. But, if after that period, the landowners cannot persuade a developer to build a cinema, the site can be used for another commercial purpose.

Mr. Polster voted against the project largely because that language fails to guarantee the development will include the entertainment businesses.

Because of a conflict of interest, Mayor Powell Duggan, a lawyer who represents PATH Foundation, recused himself from the rezoning deliberations.

The Warrenton-based philanthropic organization has a contract to buy two floors of an office building Mr. Forsten has under construction on Walker Drive.

Mr. Duggan did not attend Tuesday’s council meeting. Council member and Vice Chairwoman Sunny Reynolds (At-large) conducted the meeting.

Walker Drive Project Timeline

• June 30, 2016: Town staff accepts rezoning application for Walker Drive mixed-use development.

• July 28: Landowners Mike Forsten, Bob and Bill Springer and Walt Hitchcock file revisions to application.

• Aug. 17 — Landowners conduct an open meeting to discuss proposal with citizens.

• Sept. 29: Landowners submit additional revisions to application.

• Oct. 18: Town planning commission conducts first of three work sessions on proposal.

• Oct. 25: Commission conducts second work session.

• Dec. 6: Landowners submit additional revisions to application.

• Jan. 24, 2017: Commission holds third work session.

• Feb. 21: Commission conducts public hearing, after which it voted, 6-1, to recommend denial of the project. Commissioners voiced concerns about sewer capacity to serve the project, transportation effects, proposal’s lack of detail and proffer commitments, potential entertainment uses and loss of industrial land. Ten citizens spoke at hearing.

• March 21: Landowners submit additional revisions to application.

• May 4: Town council conducts work session on transportation, land-use, proffer and design issues.

• June 23: Landowners submit “full” application to staff for town council public hearing.

• July 11: After a two-hour public hearing, town council votes, 6-1, to grant the rezoning; Sean Polster (At-large) opposed the application. Fifty-three citizens spoke at hearing.
Member comments
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bblimber · July 17, 2017 at 2:51 pm
For all you folks who live off Walker and in the subdivisions off Academy Hill Extended... News flash: Your houses are on land that was - if memory serves - un sullied and beautiful rolling farmland less than twenty years ago. Before you all moved in, the speed limit on Walker was also a reasonable 35 MPH the full length instead of what is now lucrative speed trap.
TooTrue · July 14, 2017 at 7:23 pm
True. Lou Emerson is part of the problem since coming back he to has been bought like Reynolds and Duggan to name a few.
Tyler68 · July 14, 2017 at 5:42 am
Thanks Beto the fauquier citizen
BJ · July 13, 2017 at 2:04 pm
Anyone remember that big chunk of land behind Country Chevrolet? The Weissberg Corporation has permission to build there with store and apartments, but the 2008 economic crisis put that on hold. Will that be the next eyesore leading into Town? Yep, the Town Council has sold us all out!
TooTrue · July 13, 2017 at 11:49 am
It is sad to see this happen to Warrenton. Sunny Reynolds and those like her are taking a dark path for the future of the Town.
Silii · July 13, 2017 at 10:33 am
Oh boy! Something "to do" is now coming to Warrenton via this development. Problem is, there is no promise of "something to do." Those who spoke in favor because they need more entertainment and "something to do" in Warrenton really should consider moving to Fairfax where one is surrounded by many options of things to do - arts, universities, organizations, easy access to DC, theaters, hundreds of good ethnic restaurants, etc. This really is just more housing with usual taxpayer expenses and a few shops (maybe). I fail to see how this will provide "something to do" to replace just going drinking. The Town Council was had.
citizen observer · July 13, 2017 at 9:08 am
If the developers we're truly interested in providing "something to do" in town, why don't they build something like this instead of more stores, restaurants, and apartments?

Oh, that's right. Not enough profit in it. They played this Town like a herd of cowards.
BJ · July 13, 2017 at 7:07 am
Oh, boy, just what I want to see when taking the Meetze Road exit, a strip of buildings and cars where trees once stood, that will make my day. Not!
Savethehyenas · July 12, 2017 at 7:14 pm
This is my vote of no confidence in the Town council!
martinkus · July 12, 2017 at 4:25 pm

Agree with you 100%. There was no doubt the developer-friendly Town Council would approve this monstrosity! Hey, Sunny Reynolds, thanks for fulfilling your promise during your campaign for Town Council to fill those empty store fronts in Warrenton! The "boogeyman," Mr. Foote, got to Town Council. Folks, if you honestly believe a bowling alley and/or cinema complex will be a part of this faux main street, think, most likely, will not happen and instead, more housing! We need to vote these bums out come next election...all but Mr. Polster, whom I thanks also for his nay vote. Sad to see Warrenton going the way of Gainesville.
citizen observer · July 12, 2017 at 2:01 pm
"As was expected" the Council gave way to the developers and their phony promises. I guess people are going to enjoy walking around a new shopping center and apartments. Oh what fun!

It's also amusing to read the quotes from those living outside the Town about needing something to do. Can't say I disagree with them, but why does everything in a 780 square mile county have to be in Warrenton? Bet something like this would never be approved in Upperville.

Was the lawyer Ross hired by the developers to say change is good or is that really his opinion? Money talks loudly among the good old boys and girls running this Town. I thank Mr. Polster for standing up for the poor people.

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