Mason Neck Neighbors Fear GMU's Center for Peace Will Threaten Theirs

Property Donation Includes Permit For Sewage Facility

Mason Neck Neighbors Fear GMU's Center for Peace Will Threaten Theirs

Property Donation Includes Permit For Sewage Facility

By Annie Gowen

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007; Page VA12


They hope students and professors from the university's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in Fairfax City will one day gather at the retreat to observe, think and study. They envision leaders from war-torn nations sitting down in small conference rooms overlooking the property's serene wetlands and working out their problems, just 22 miles south of the nation's capital.

"Point of View will be a place where people with deep differences can address their conflicts, resolve them and heal," said Sara Cobb, the institute's director. "That's the broad vision."

In recent weeks, the planned center for peace has sparked controversy among neighbors in some of the 750 houses on Mason Neck, a 9,000-acre peninsula in southeastern Fairfax County known for its parkland, wildlife refuge and bald eagle nests.

Mason Neck residents are a hardy lot who have existed without county sewer and water lines for decades and have long fought development, determined to keep "the Neck," as they call it, the way it is.

"It's the jewel of Fairfax County," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), whose district includes the area. "It's sort of a like an oasis; you go back in a time machine to the way Fairfax County was 80 years ago."

Edwin Lynch, an early supporter of the university's conflict resolution program, donated his family home and the 120 acres of surrounding waterfront property to GMU in two phases in 2000 and 2001.

Residents are concerned about the retreat's impact on security and traffic and worry that its construction would harm such sensitive river tributaries as Kane's Creek. They are most alarmed, however, about news that GMU's charitable foundation has a permit to allow a private sewage treatment facility there that could process 250,000 gallons a day.

Since the 1960s, Mason Neck residents have blocked proposals to bring public sewer service into the area, fearing that it would lead to hundreds of new houses and large development. What's protected the Neck so far, they think, is that each house needs a well and septic system. Just a decade ago, some of the more rustic dwellings still had outhouses, residents say. "No sewer" has long been the rallying cry.

"We're very concerned," said Bruce Scott, president of the Mason Neck Citizens Association. "We are seeking a firm commitment from the university that they don't intend to build such a huge sewage treatment before we can support this endeavor."

Other neighbors have been less politic, saying that GMU had played down the size of the planned complex and is not being responsive.

The master plan for the site includes a 50-seat lecture hall and welcome center, a dining hall, 35 guest cabins, fellows apartments, faculty offices, a 72-space parking lot and an outdoor "ritual space" where treaties could be signed.

"This is the most pristine tidal estuary in Fairfax County, and it deserves better protection," said George Arnold, head of the Belmont Bay Community Association, who lives in a 1724-era brick house in the small neighborhood next door to the university's land.

"We don't want 'em for neighbors," Arnold said. "Listen, if the George Mason [Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution] doesn't know how to resolve a conflict with their neighbors, . . . then we are headed for World War III."

GMU officials say they inherited the permit for the sewage treatment facility from Lynch, its former owner.

School officials are waiting for the results of engineering studies to make any decisions about how to proceed, said Nancy S. Pickens, a project manager in GMU's facilities office. If tests show the land would accommodate a septic system, they hope not to build the treatment facility or to use just a fraction of that capacity, she said. They should know the results in about six months.

GMU plans to remodel the Lynch house to "green" building standards and develop the 40 surrounding acres while leaving the rest of the land undisturbed, she said.

"It's a beautiful and unique piece of property, and we want to keep it that way," Pickens said.

Lynch, a developer and state delegate, was a "Virginia gentleman" and a champion of voting rights and other causes, said Lawrence D. Czarda, George Mason's vice president for regional campuses, who first met Lynch in the early 1980s. Lynch made his fortune buying and selling land in Fairfax County. One of his family's early farms eventually became part of the Burke Centre planned community.

He was also an early supporter of George Mason's center, which began offering the first master's degree program in conflict resolution in 1981. Its faculty and alumni have since served as mediators and consultants in conflict zones in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and Latin America.

"He believed deeply in Fairfax County and believed the area really needed a major public university," Czarda said.

The family at one point owned a large horse farm on Mason Neck, and some of Lynch's fiercely independent neighbors regarded him with suspicion, fearing he might try to develop it into a subdivision, said Gary Knipling, 64, a veterinarian. Their fears were unrealized. In a complicated land deal, the Lynches eventually turned over much of that property to the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Now, much of Mason Neck is preserved, including three major parks -- a 2,200-acre wildlife refuge, Mason Neck State Park and Pohick Bay Regional Park, run by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Also in Mason Neck is Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, the founding father who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the precursor to the Bill of Rights.

With only one road in and out and with access to leafy trails and dazzling water views, residents say they love the sleepy feel of Mason Neck and never want it to change. Wildlife abounds, but the area is best known as a nesting spot for bald eagles. There are eight known nests and 20 to 40 eagles on the peninsula, park officials say.

"It's still almost a secret," Knipling said. "You can feel it when you turn off Route 1; the traffic goes away. You just feel like a load has been lifted off your shoulders."

When news surfaced in recent weeks of the sewer treatment facility, neighbors and politicians raised alarms, saying the treatment capacity is too great for the retreat to bring 100 visitors a day. The county's wastewater plant in nearby Lorton, by contrast, treats about 50 million gallons of wastewater per day.

Albo called it "insane -- it's mind-boggling how huge that is."

Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said he recently asked the county attorney to investigate what Fairfax County's options might be if the state-funded university goes forward with its plan.

Cobb said that GMU officials want to continue meeting with neighbors to hear and allay their concerns and that the dialogue is apt to be a long one.

Officials want to have the first phase of the project completed by 2010, but the timetable depends on fundraising.

"The tank is one of the first of many issues that will arise over time," Cobb said. "Right now it looms large, but it won't be the last. . . . For that reason, we want to establish a trusting, long-term and productive relationship with the community."