County Supervisors OK ‘Worthy Project in Bad Location’

County Supervisors OK ‘Worthy Project in Bad Location’

Affordable, senior housing to be built near busy Dulles runway.

Artist’s rendition of the building, looking north.

Artist’s rendition of the building, looking north.

Before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors authorized a new housing project in Chantilly last week, two significant things happened. The Board ignored a fact-based plea from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) to not place it there, and the supervisor recommending its approval misrepresented the position of a joint land-use committee.

“The best way to avoid airplane-noise problems is to keep housing away from high-noise zones.”

— David Mould, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

And the thing is – the project is a great idea because it’ll provide much-needed, affordable apartments for low-income senior citizens. The problem is that it’s in an extremely noisy location where the residents will live directly beneath Dulles International Airport flight paths and will hear large airplanes both departing and coming in for landings, at low altitudes, 24/7.

“It’s certainly a worthy project, but it’s in a very bad location,” said David Mould, MWAA vice president, Communications and Government Affairs. “As we’ve noted before, the Airports Authority has strong concerns about constructing any new homes in such a highly noise-sensitive location so close to the end of a busy runway.”

Mould spoke in person last Tuesday, March 19, during the Supervisors’ public hearing on Agape Property Management’s proposal to build an independent-living facility and adult daycare center at 3870 Centerview Drive, in the Dulles Business Park off Route 50. Agape was seeking a land rezoning from industrial to commercial, plus a special-exception permit to erect senior housing there. 

The Joint Sully District Council of Citizens Assns. and West Fairfax County Citizens Assn. Land-Use Committee had no objection to the Supervisors’ Jan. 23 approval of a Comprehensive Plan Amendment for this parcel, allowing a commercial-residential use there, instead of office/industrial. But it worried about people living in such a noisy environment; and before last week’s hearing, it emailed its specific objections to the Supervisors and did not endorse the project (see sidebar).

At the Committee’s Jan. 15 meeting, land-use planner Mike Van Atta, representing Agape, presented details of the proposal. He said Agape wanted to build some 228 leased apartments in a five-story building with enhanced, ADA-designed facilities for seniors with incomes 60 percent or lower than the Area Median Income.

Planned, as well, are an onsite pharmacy, office for visiting doctors, physical-therapy room, computer/arts rooms, recreation areas, dining room/community kitchen, in-home care, nursing supervision and medication management, plus transportation and meal services. To be called Agape House Chantilly, it would have frontage on Thunderbolt Place and be near an existing pond and trails.

“It’s one of the last, remaining vacant properties in the Dulles Business Park,” said Van Atta. “It was approved for a hotel that was never built. We propose two, new vehicle-access points on Thunderbolt Place and separate entrances and drop-off areas for the residents and the adult daycare facility. A new public-park space just north of the pond will have new landscaping, seating areas, exercise stations and game tables. And there’ll be a private, gated and secured courtyard with a garden and yoga area.”

He said residents may participate in the programming and activities at the daycare center, and Agape would construct a new, 6-foot-wide trail along the entire property frontage, as well as two, new pedestrian crosswalks – one across Thunderbolt Place and one at the Thunderbolt/Centerview intersection.

After his presentation in January, the Land-Use Committee said it would express its concerns about this project when the rezoning came to the Supervisors. And one of the meeting attendees, Jehanne Arslan, told Van Atta, “Since the people moving in will be elderly – and a lot of them have hearing difficulties – the ambient noise outside should be addressed to make an environment people will feel comfortable in.”

At last week’s hearing before the Supervisors, Emma Estes with the county’s Department of Planning and Development said the site is nearly 3.8 acres and is in the 65-70 dba (decibels) noise zone. But Van Atta said the noise meets “acceptable levels” on the property. 

“We’ll provide an abrogation easement to MWAA [underscoring airplanes’ right to fly over the property] and will disclose the site’s proximity to the airport in all our marketing materials,” he said. Van Atta added that potential residents would be told “overflights and associated noise may impact them.” And he said both county staff and the Planning Commission had approved Agape’s proposal.

Then Mould of MWAA addressed the Supervisors. “Proponents of the project note that the homes would be just outside [an aircraft] noise-contour line,” he said. “But this project is very, very close to the flight paths and the end of the runway. When planes are coming in for a landing, they’re at their lowest and loudest point, right before they get onto the runway. And this runway is in major use around the clock It’s one of Dulles’s main runways, and it will be a fairly constant quality-of-life issue for people living here.”

“The best way to avoid airplane-noise problems is to keep housing away from high-noise zones,” he continued. “[That’s where] aircraft noise is the loudest, has the greatest impact, causes the most problems and generates the most complaints.” Furthermore, said Mould, since airplanes greatly decrease their altitude when preparing to land on the runway, they’re only about 500 feet overhead then – or roughly the height of the Washington Monument.

He said that’s how low they’d fly over Agape’s housing project, and “these are really big planes flying loudly on flight paths that have been in use since the airport opened in 1962. And these flight paths cannot be changed, because of their proximity to the runway. Flights also depart along this same path, and they’re much louder when they’re taking off. So departing planes would be an even bigger noise problem for people living here – especially when they’re trying to sleep – because this goes on 24/7.”

Mould then showed the Supervisors a map depicting the flightpaths’ proximity to where the senior housing would go. “The red lines on this map are the departure paths, and the gray circle next to the arrow at the bottom is the proposed location of this project,” he explained. “Very large planes are either landing or taking off from this runway 400-plus times a day. And that number will only grow as air traffic increases in the years ahead.

“If homes are built here, there will be complaints about noise to the airport as well as to the county. It’s already happening in other places where new housing was built under flight paths, despite the airport’s repeated cautions about noise. One community not far from here was built just a few years ago, near the end of another Dulles runway. It was approved after the developers and their lawyers and consultants insisted there wouldn’t be a noise problem.”

“But the people who moved into the houses disagree,” continued Mould. “And last year, more than 70 percent of all the noise complaints we received around Dulles Airport were from this one community. So the Airports Authority respectfully requests that this project not be approved at this particular location to avoid having the same kind of problem here.”

Van Atta, however, said the applicant’s noise study showed that most of the site would have an average 54 dba, with “a sliver of it in the 65-70 dba range.” He said the building and recreation areas are in the 60-65 dba, with only the surface parking in the 65-plus dba. “The building interior will be no more than 45 dba and will have thicker windows, additional insulation and other noise-mitigation measures,” said Van Atta. 

He noted that the outside decibel level wouldn’t change, whether MWAA’s updated 2019 noise contours are used or the outdated ones from 1993 that the county insists on using – even though they’re more than three decades old. “And we’ll have post-construction noise studies done, and if the building is above 45 dba, we’d go back and retrofit it before anyone occupies it,” said Van Atta. “We think we’re putting forth a good project and this is a good location for affordable housing.”

Supervisor Walt Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) asked if there’d be mitigation, 10 or 20 years later, if the noise increases. “Once it’s occupied, we’re not going to do anymore testing,” replied Van Atta. “But there must still be compliance with that 45 dba interior proffer, which would continue with all succeeding tenants.”

Supervisor Kathy Smith (D-Sully) then made a motion to approve Agape’s proposal. “This is such an important need for our community to have senior living at 60 percent or below area median income,” she said. “The applicant has worked really hard on this project. It is in a good location. People living there will be able to get to businesses, there are bus routes around, and our community center isn’t far away.

“So I’m supportive of this project. The Planning Commission approved, the Joint Sully Land-Use Committee approved it and [it] meets the expectations of the zoning ordinance and Comprehensive Plan.” 

Members of the joint land-use committee disagreed, saying the “committee’s position on [this] application is [being] misrepresented to justify a controversial approval.” (See sidebar).

Alcorn supported the motion, but told staff, “In future cases like this, we need the ability to ensure compliance with the 45 dba interior requirement. And although the state legislature threw out any possibility of us requiring disclosure in the Airport Noise Overlay Area generally, we’ll have to be creative about where we get proffers.”

The Board then approved the project, 9-1, with only Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) voting no. “I think it’s a great use in a bad location,” he said. “I don’t support residential in flight paths. The future of Dulles Airport is too important and, hopefully, it’s going to continue to grow.”