Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Sleepy Hollow Project Is a White Elephant

By James Hickey

The Sleepy Hollow community and the neighborhoods that branch off it are a splendor of mature trees and well-maintained yards in a close-knit neighborhood. Most homeowners here spend their weekends improving their property with flowerbeds, shrubs, trees that blossom in the spring — all meant to improve property values and beautify the community. But much of these efforts and investments are about to be bulldozed by elected and agency officials who insist they know better what is good for our property and the community at large.

Soon the orange cones, lane closures, backhoes, chain saws and pavers will descend on over two miles of Sleepy Hollow Road. As the community has gradually come to realize this, they’ve started to break out the proverbial pitchforks and torches. That is likely the reason for the Feb. 1 edition of the Falls Church News-Press in which Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross reassured us that all will be well. What she fails to mention, however, is that this expensive and intrusive bike path and sidewalk will decimate the front yards of nearly 50 homeowners.

Sleepy Hollow homeowners are angry that their front yards will soon be ripped up to pour wide cement walkways used by few and paid for by all — in the taxes the county has taken, the coming year-long disruption and construction traffic in front of their homes, and from the inevitable decline in their property values. All for a project that they did not request, that will benefit few, but will be paid for by all.

This white elephant project – an expensive and bloated idea with much cost and little value — will install a bike lane, a 15-foot wide sidewalk and buffer zone and, in some places, sterile retaining walls. For many homeowners they will lose as much as half their front yard, and for an unlucky few, most of their yard. For those unlucky ones, wide sidewalks and strolling pedestrians will now be less than 10 feet from their front picture windows. Say goodbye to the privacy you have come to enjoy and expect with home ownership.

Some officials consider the narrow band of land that borders these streets as county-owned “rights of way” subject to eminent domain seizure as their playthings to be “improved,” often over the opposition of every homeowner. I’ve never known any homeowner who willingly offered his front yard to the county. Rather, these owners have been forced to reluctantly accept meager restitution after told that seizure was imminent whether they accept the county’s offer or not. The result is often the same — the county takes the land you have maintained at your expense, and the homeowner is left with a front yard stripped of trees, shrubs and flowers, walls knocked down, fences removed and a dramatic fall in property value. But don’t worry, these officials reassure you – your financial loss is for the greater community good.

Ms. Gross remarks that she has received many requests for sidewalks and bike lanes — but I’m fairly certain that not a single person said “please take my front yard and my neighbor’s too.” Most, in fact, were probably unaware of the scope or harm the project would bring to the community. I’m also certain she conveniently neglected to say that even more requests have recently come in adamantly opposing this project. These homeowners are demanding that county officials limit the project to a less ambitious and expensive scope that leaves the community’s front yards alone. Although she doesn’t mention it, that option is both viable and preferable.

What we need are more officials who listen to us, and care more for the homeowners who invest their time and money in the purchase and maintenance of their property for the good of the community, and less about these kinds of centralized government vanity projects.

If one truly believes in the value of such projects and their contributions to the greater good, then try listening to the homeowners who reside on these streets. If they insist we accept this project, how about designing it in a way that protects property by downscaling it so that it serves the needs of all county residents – both homeowners and the strollers and cyclists that it claims to serve.

The Sleepy Hollow Sidewalk project, as currently envisioned, is a bad idea. The tired idea of grabbing the land of many homeowners to serve the needs of a few is unnecessary and ignores the true desires of the community. This project is like a bad penny that keeps coming back, bringing unacceptable outcomes to a beautiful community. It’s time to retire this bad penny and respect the needs of all Falls Church residents.