This write up presents an overview of the OWC, its major activities and accomplishments. For a detailed account of our accomplishments please go to our Resources & Articles section. Many OWC activities and actions are routine: telephone calls and inquires; email and fax exchanges; interactions with the Fairfax County Staff and occasionally with Congressional offices; consultation with neighboring counties; meetings with organizations like the County Federation of Associations; and last but significant is our frequent contact with Springfield Supervisor Pat Herrity and his staff.
The mission and role of the OWC is broad based. The OWC does not become engaged in every issue involving the Down-zoned Watershed. We will continue to be highly selective in determining which specific problem threatens the well being of our environmentally sensitive area. The talents, skills, education and varied experience of the OWC members are our major strengths.
With that introduction, it is important to appreciate the difference between “the Occoquan Watershed” and “the Down-zoned Occoquan Watershed”– they are not the same …
“The Occoquan Watershed” consists of all the land, including the tributary streams, which drain into the Occoquan River and the Occoquan Reservoir, the Watershed’s largest body of water. It begins as far west as the Shenandoah and ends where the Occoquan joins the Potomac. The Occoquan Watershed area is about 600 square miles, which includes parts of Prince William, Fauquier, London Counties and nearly one third of Fairfax County.
“The Down-zoned Occoquan Watershed” came into being on July 26, 1982 when the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors amended the County Comprehensive Plan. They down-zoned approximately 41,000 acres of land in “The Occoquan Watershed” to a R-C District (Residential-Conservation), one dwelling per five acres. The Watershed is different from others areas in the Northern Region and is protected by Fairfax County. It provides drinking water to over one million residents. It constitutes an ecological reserve, sited in a rural setting and is designed to protect and conserve our drinking water, as Fairfax and the Northern Region become more urban and developed. Major commuter roads crossing the reservoir and running through the Down-zoned Occoquan Watershed, and large man-made complexes do not belong in the down-zoned area.
A CENTRAL CROSSING – 1994 TO 1998
The all volunteer Occoquan Watershed Coalition, led by 20 Directors and 8 Directors-at-Large, was founded in 1994 and was principally formed to counter the real threat of a major, new crossing over the Occoquan, which would impact seriously the Reservoir’s drinking water. A limited access highway, running through the heart of Central Fairfax County was proposed by VDOT and supported by Prince William County (PWC). A Study Proposal was distributed for comment in 1994. The OWC January 25, 1995 response is located on its Web Site Archives (See: The OWC Web Site Archives at “W”). The OWC response, which has withstood the test of time, is the foundation for most OWC actions. In 1994 although a few were, most of the OWC Directors were neither Transportation nor Environmental experts. The January 25, 1995 letter, mailed and distributed to over 100 elected and appointed officials, organizations, associations, and individuals, located principally in Northern Virginia, went through 15 drafts and took six weeks to complete. The OWC Leadership studied, researched, reviewed, and analyzed all pertinent past and current studies plus VDOT’s short range and long range plans, interviewed countless individuals and attended numerous meetings (See: The OWC Web Site at “About the OWC” Page….entitled: “Participation in Other Areas.”). This was done to understand fully the risks to the drinking water in the Reservoir and how best to counter those threats. In the process the OWC Leadership honed its skills, while at the same time organizing into two major Committees– the Transportation Committee and The Environmental and Land Use Committee.
The OWC worked days, nights and weekends and spent time traveling the Occoquan and the Bull Run by boat and by foot to appreciate the terrain, supplementing its own map analysis. In time, the OWC came to understand the terrain of the Downzoned Watershed better than those who had proposed a major, new highway over the Occoquan.
In early 1995 VDOT distributed to both Prince William and Fairfax Counties an overlay map containing 23 possible routes for a proposed Highway across the Occoquan into Fairfax County (FFC). This six lane highway would bring thousands of commuter cars daily onto The Fairfax County Parkway and also to many major and minor road networks. These commuters once into Fairfax County would be nowhere near their place of work, but could shut down the Fairfax County road system. A de facto “WESTERN-BYPASS” would be created in the process– more on this later. The OWC understood from the outset that an Origin/Destination study of commuters entering Fairfax was essential if logic, not emotion was to determine the need for an Occoquan Crossing. This 1994 threat of a Central Crossing over the Occoquan Reservoir from PWC was not the first (See: The OWC Web Site Archives at “O”….”A History of Road Crossing Attempts.” October, 2000. This paper, carefully researched and historically accurate, traces a major Occoquan Crossing challenge in the late 1980s along with earlier attempts. It should be read to place what happened in the mid 1990s in perspective and to fully understand its implications.).
The OWC analyzed the VDOT proposed routes for a new road. Papers were written, presentations were delivered and interviews with local Newspapers were granted. In April 1995 “A Citizens’ Working Group”, composed of 35 citizen representatives from the Mount Vernon, Springfield, and Sully Districts, and chaired by the FFC Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) was formed at the direction of the Fairfax County Board. Deliberations continued into July, 1995 with the Citizens, frequently in contentious discussion, ultimately coming together and unanimously recommending no new crossing be built over the Occoquan or the Bull Run. This was possible only because each issue was discussed in the context of “PRINCIPLES”, which were logically and unemotionally applied. (See: The OWC Web Site Archives at “T”….”Citizen Working Group Recommendations to the Fairfax County Board”, which was forwarded to the Board of Supervisors by the TAC.) Interestingly, some members of the Prince William County TAC attended most of our deliberations. It’s Chairman agreed with the logic and conclusions of the Working Group Findings.)
Following the “Citizen’s Working Group” report to the Fairfax Board, the OWC briefed individually all of the members of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and its Chairman. It also traveled to Richmond and briefed the State Commissioner of Roads. The OWC then met with various organizations, as well as individually with three members of the Prince William Board of Supervisors directly involved with a possible Occoquan crossing– briefing, persuading and listening. The next two years were busy interacting with VDOT, FCC Supervisors, Organizations, Associations, key civic leaders, transportation experts and others.
The rush for a quick Study, followed by rapid approval of a limited access road over the Occoquan, had been halted. It was correctly perceived by many that a Central Crossing could very quickly become a de facto “WESTERN-BYPASS”, bringing thousands of cars and trucks through central FFC to destinations in Loudon County, Arlington County and Maryland and further North. Thus, Fairfax County could become a major thoroughfare, not a destination.
Finally, in 1998 long awaited approval and financial support was obtained by Delegate Jay O’Brien for an Origin/Destination Study with The Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s (COG) National Capitol Region Transportation Planning Board administering the Study. The results (see The OWC Web Site Archives at “F”, “M” and “T”….”The 1998 Fairfax County-Prince William County Origin-Destination Study”, November 20, 1998) revealed that the destination of commuters from Prince William and other Southern and Western Counties was not Central Fairfax, but Fort Belvoir, The I-95 Business Development area and the rapidly expanding Route 28/Dulles Business Corridor. In late November, 1998 at a Joint Meeting with three Supervisors each from PWC and FFC and attended by both Board Chairman, Prince William County agreed that no new crossing should take place in light of the Origin/Destination survey results. The major entrance points into Fairfax County for Commuters would be I-95, Route 123, I-66, Route 1 and Route 28– all to be expanded. Additionally, Bus service would be started with “park-and-ride lots” built to assist Commuters from PWC and other Southern Counties to their place of business.
Not all the OWC focus was on the threat of a Central Crossing across the Occoquan. For example, it was decided after a number of years of debate between Residents and VDOT that Yates Ford Road, running from Clifton to Chapel Roads and the last, major road not fully surfaced in the County, must be paved. VDOT proposed a wide, “bowling alley” type road, suitable for a built up, urban environment. The VDOT designed road would destroy many, large, beautiful trees and other natural and man-made landmarks. The existing, meandering, narrow country road linked the close-knit Community together, providing a sense of character and rustic charm. The OWC became deeply involved in numerous, unsuccessful meetings with VDOT and the residents. A breakthrough in this impasse occurred when the OWC requested that the VDOT Assistant Secondary Road Engineer from Richmond attend these meetings. He did and also walked the road with the Residents and the OWC, clearly understanding the citizen’s desire to retain the uniqueness of Yates Ford Road. Then, rather quickly most issues were decided in favor of the Residents, who the OWC had strongly supported. The result today represents what a professionally designed and engineered road, located in a small, rural Community on the Downzoned Watershed should look like. To calm traffic: Stop Signs, School Bus Signs and Speed Humps have been sited.
With respect to the threat of a Central Crossing over the Occoquan, it is important to emphasize that the strong, tough actions of Supervisor Elaine McConnell were instrumental in the successful outcome, involving over three years of conflict with VDOT and Prince William County. The OWC functioned as a major extension of her office and, as such, was a key staff agency working closely with her and her highly professional staff. This teamwork was essential in mobilizing Fairfax County support against a Central Crossing, which would place the Reservoir’s drinking water at high risk; undermine the mission of the Downzoned Watershed; and establish a de facto “WESTERN-BYPASS” through Central Fairfax County, while possibly bringing the FFC Parkway to a halt by the daily arrival of thousands of commuters and travelers.
On January 2, 2002 The FFC Board of Supervisors again reaffirmed unanimously its commitment to the FFC Comprehensive Plan and restated the Board’s firm opposition to any Central Crossing of the Occoquan Reservoir. In light of previous VDOT actions the Board authorized the Chairman to send a letter to VDOT reaffirming its clear intention that no such crossing be added, or shown, on any Northern Virginia Transportation Map, for 2020 or beyond. Since that date the OWC Transportation Committee’s mode has been watchful waiting; while writing and briefing on the need for a concerted plan for: Telework/Telecommuting, a few new roads with selective widening of existing roads, and the infusion of rapid transit.
ENVIRONMENTAL AND LAND USE CHALLENGES
In late 1998 the workload focus shifted from the OWC Transportation Committee to the OWC Environmental and Land Use Committee. A number of challenges surfaced during the next few years, as major, man-made buildings were proposed for the Downzoned Watershed in direct conflict with Environmental Tenets, Land Use Principles, and Traffic Concerns. These matters are presented on the OWC Web Site: (Knollwood Church at The OWC Web Site Archives at “K”); (The Ohev Yisrael Messianic Jewish Church at the OWC Web Site Archives at “J”); (The Fairfax County Trails Issues Regarding the Downzoned Watershed at the OWC Web Site “Current Issues” Page); (Hemlock Park Issues at the OWC Web Site “Current Issues” Page and at the Archives at “H”).
In most of the above situations the OWC functioned in Direct Support of the individual Communities directly impacted, providing advice, counsel, detailed analysis, letters and papers, and testimony. The OWC did its best work quietly behind the scenes, choosing not to grandstand in any way which could be interpreted as self-promotion. At times it was appropriate to testify.
On March 18, 2002 the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors designated 2002 as ” THE OCCOQUAN WATERSHED YEAR” in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the FFC Board’s decision on July 26, 1982 to Downzone approximately 41,000 of the 63,000 (about 63%) of the land comprising the Occoquan Basin portion of Fairfax County. The purpose of the Downzoning was the recognized need to protect the viability of the Occoquan River and its Watershed that now supplies over a million residents with their water. On March 18, 2002 the Fairfax Chairman of the Board of Supervisors noted that since 1982 the Nation has become more aware of the need for protection and preservation of water. This important decision by the Fairfax County Supervisors can be found on the OWC Web Site Archives at “O” ….. Occoquan Watershed Year, “Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Downzoning, 2002.”
On March 14, 2002 in conjunction with the recognition of the 20th Anniversary Year of the Downzoning of the Occoquan Watershed, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the establishment of the ’New Millennium Occoquan Watershed Task Force’ with representatives from appropriate County agencies, the Park Authority, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Northern Virginia Regional Commission, Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, The Occoquan Watershed Coalition, Fairfax County Water Authority, Audubon Naturalist Society, Health Department, and stakeholder representatives.
This intensified study effort will identify what more the County can do to protect and preserve the Occoquan Reservoir and the reserve surrounding it. The Task Force began its meetings in the fall of 2002 and will complete its work by the end of December, 2002. Following this major study, Fairfax County will be in an excellent position to compare water quality with other jurisdictions nationally and to take necessary action to improve its situation. The Task Force Conclusions and Recommendations will be placed on the OWC Web Site Archives as soon as practical. Also, this Section of the Accomplishments Paper will be expanded to incorporate major Task Force study Conclusions and Recommendations.
On July 22, 2002 at The Fairfax Government Center there was a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Downzoning decision led by the Chairman and members of the Fairfax County Board, recognizing those in the past and in the present who made and continue to make the 1982 Downzoning successful by protecting the Region’s drinking water.
In summary, the need for protecting the Downzoned Watershed and the drinking water in the Reservoir will never end…. More people in Fairfax will mean more pressure to use up the green reserves in the County, including the Downzoned area. Citizens who want to have a place in Fairfax County where eagles fly and deer roam free will have to stand up and fight again, time-after-time. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors must stand firmly with them to preserve what we have today, for tomorrow, and to protect the Region’s drinking water. Because of the OWC and the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, someone will stand up, and that means that the Downzoned Occoquan Watershed will remain the jewel in Fairfax’s crown—as an asset for all Citizens in the County and the Northern Region.