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November 15, 2013

Last-minute changes keep Opal Gateway alive

Photo/Lawrence Emerson
Dr. Hasan Abdallah explains his vision for a children’s medical center at Opal.
I think this is a good step in the right direction, concentrating the development up against the core (of Opal). So, it makes some sense. But this is a lot to digest on the day of the meeting, on such a big animal.
— Supervisor Chris Granger (Center District)
Opal Gateway
• Proposed uses: 100-room hotel, 175-lot RV park, medical offices, stores, two restaurants and bank.

• Where: 100 acres in 7 parcels, along east side of Route 17 about a half-mile south of Opal. Most of property, outside the service district, has agricultural zoning.

• Owner: Juniper Tree Properties LLC and Oak Tree Properties LLC of McLean, controlled by Hasan Aballah, a pediatric cardiologist from McLean.

• Tax benefit: $680,000 annually “net” to county, according to the developer's study.

• Issues: Traffic, water supply, justification for expanding service district

• Next: Supervisors voted, 5-0, Thursday to delay a vote, probably until January at the earliest.
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In May, the unusual, 100-acre “Opal Gateway” development proposal seemed doomed.

Fauquier’s planning commission voted, 5-0, to recommend the board of supervisors deny the project.

The proposed mix of medical offices, a 100-room hotel, stores, “flex” buildings, a truck stop, two restaurants and an RV park would erase traffic flow improvements from the new, $45-million Opal interchange, a state transportation official testified.

Had the series of land-use decisions gone to board of supervisors’ votes Thursday night, Opal Gateway almost certainly would have failed to win approval.

Supervisors Lee Sherbeyn (Cedar Run District) and Chester Stribling (Lee District) supported it but had little hope for a third vote on the five-member board.

Thursday’s developments, however, gave the project new life — and a potential path to approval.

Bowing to neighbors’ concerns, McLean pediatric cardiologist Hasan Abdallah, who owns the land along Route 17 south of Opal, already had deleted the proposed truck stop from his plan in September.

This week, Dr. Abdallah dramatically reduced the amount of commercial zoning sought and eliminated the industrial component.

It gets complicated and technical.

But planning consultant Joe Wiltse, representing the landowner, on Thursday morning offered changes that would:

• Leave 47 percent of the property in rural agricultural zoning. But, the 175-space RV park would go there, requiring changes in the county zoning ordinance and policy on location of public sewerage.

• Reduce to 53 percent the portion of the site zoned for commercial use. The original application sought commercial zoning for all 100 acres.

Those changes also would reduce the number of jobs and tax revenues Opal Gateway could create, of course. The original plan would have generated 300 jobs and $680,000 in annual, net tax revenue, according to the application.

The commercial zoning would cover the north portion of the tract, near Clarkes Road. The RV park would cover the southern portion.

“I’m not even sure where to start,” Supervisor Peter Schwartz (Marshall District) said after Mr. Wiltse described the changes in a morning work session. “I don’t mind looking at all of this, but there’s no time before tonight.”

Mr. Schwartz noted that the county planning staff and other agencies should have opportunities to review the new proposal and provide comments.

“I think this is a good step in the right direction, concentrating the development up against the core” of Opal, Supervisor Chris Granger (Center District) said. “So, it makes some sense. But this is a lot to digest on the day of the meeting, on such a big animal.”

Ten people — equally divided for and against approval — testified at a 25-minute public hearing on the project Thursday night.

Water, traffic and expansion of the Opal Service District — designated for development — remain major issues.

Supervisor Holder Trumbo (Scott District) praised the applicant for changing the proposal.

While he has lots of concerns and questions about the plan, Mr. Trumbo said the county needs “good, positive economic development . . . .

“I look forward to working with you to see if we can figure this out,” he told Dr. Abdallah and Mr. Wiltse.

During the planning commission deliberations and hearing in May, the applicant’s traffic engineers and a Virginia Department of Transportation representative argued about the project’s potential impact on already-congested local roads.

Supervisors Sherbeyn and Stribling contend the applicant’s plans and cash proffers adequately address those concerns.

No traffic expert testified Thursday.

Dr. Abdallah has pledged $500,000 toward development of a water system for Opal, if his project doesn’t develop its own source, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to address traffic.

The supervisors voted, 5-0, to postpone a vote and to keep the public hearing open.

Mr. Stribling’s health will play a pivotal role in the continuing deliberations. He soon will return to the Cancer Centers of America near Chicago for radiation and other treatment after recent surgery. He will miss the Dec. 14 meeting.

The board probably will wait for his return to vote on Opal Gateway.
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