Proposed changes to Sleepy Hollow Road spurred a community to action as it looked to push back against what was perceived to be government overreach in its rural refuge.
Fairfax County’s Mason District officially began implementing a plan to build sidewalks, bike lanes, concrete medians and retaining walls up and down Sleepy Hollow Road last spring. It was finally time for the district to make good on an initiative that stemmed from a 2002 countywide study finding that Fairfax County averaged 20 pedestrian fatalities a year, according to Fairfax County Department of Transportation (FCDOT) Pedestrian and Bike Coordinator, Chris Wells.
In 2012, the Board of Supervisors approved an initiative to enable multi-modal forms of transportation throughout Fairfax County’s major and minor arterial byways. A year later the idea of accommodations to Sleepy Hollow Road were surveyed and signed-off by 47 residents of the neighborhood, and the idea was pitched along with a package of 400 other projects in the area that was approved by the Board of Supervisors in February 2014.
Now, the project is roughly a third of the way to its completion date in the fall of 2020 and community feedback and design plans had been addressed throughout 2017.
Current blueprints depict a more urbanized Sleepy Hollow Road and an undetermined amount of land acquisition and tree felling on private property to make way for the new installations. This was all news to the Sleepy Hollow Road residents who packed Mason District’s governmental center on Monday night.
“We all moved here knowing what we were going to get,” stated one resident in the audience, who argued earlier that the project was in violation of he and his neighbors’ rights. He followed his comment up by asking Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross what she was planning to do to stop this project. Gross replied by saying there was no plan to stop the construction.
Skepticism about the project’s purpose was palpable during the meeting. The pedestrian accommodations were being designed with the intention to make traversing Sleepy Hollow Road safer on-foot or bike.
However, when one resident asked if the County had any numbers on the amount of pedestrian fatalities or accidents on the byway, FCDOT staffer Mark Van Zandt said they did not.
Another resident asked if it was possible to install a crosswalk traffic light, similar to the ones found on Leesburg Pike just outside of Seven Corners or in the Arlington County section of Columbia Pike. Van Zandt replied by saying there wasn’t enough foot traffic to justify installing one. Some residents then wondered aloud how redesigning nearly the full length of Sleepy Hollow Road could be justified, but putting up a crosswalk light could not.
Director of FCDOT, Tom Biesiadny, chimed in and described it as a “chicken or egg” argument. Essentially, does the need for pedestrian accommodations come first and then the construction, or does the construction of walkways and bike paths create the need for residents?
Residents weren’t convinced there was solid enough ground to enact a plan removing an unspecified amount of trees and private property from citizens for the sake of a project in which they showed little interest.
That mindset fed doubts about the 2013 survey’s validity. The 47 residents who responded to the survey approved of the idea of improvements toward multi-modal transportation, but they had no physical designs to reference in their decision making.
In response, a resident orchestrated an impromptu heckler’s veto by asking how many people didn’t approve of the current plan as is — a roomful of hands shot up. The estimated budget of $5 million made residents even more dubious of the project’s hold on reality.
“What we don’t want is a massive usurpation of property and denuding of Sleepy Hollow Road,” another resident added when engaging with Gross. This resident was particularly critical of the aesthetic effect the project would have by adding too much concrete to Sleepy Hollow Road.
Communication about the County’s plans were spotty, though whether that falls on the residents or the County wasn’t clear. Gross’ staff reminded the audience that the 2013 survey and updates on the project were made publicly available through Mason District’s website, Facebook page and bi-annual newsletters sent out to District residents.
Wherever the disconnect was before, the County has its constituents’ attention now. And despite the mostly negative attention the project received Monday night, Gross isn’t looking to call off the County’s plans just yet.
“You want a better design, I want a safer design, let’s see if we can work on that and we’ll have another meeting,” Gross said to the crowd. “The time frame can be adjusted, but I don’t want it to slow down.”
Gross and the rest of the County staff directed people to leave written comments at the meeting’s end so the planning staff could take them into consideration for future designs.