Almost a year to the day of last April’s cantankerous meeting between Fairfax County government officials and the Sleepy Hollow community over the construction of sidewalks, the project has seen sweeping revisions, though uncertainty still lingers about whether the new infrastructure would address residents’ primary concerns.
A packed house at the Mason District governmental center for last year’s meeting saw nearly 100 neighborhood residents turn out to voice their opposition to the Sleepy Hollow Walkway Project that aimed to complete a disjointed sidewalk by claiming a significant amount of private property.
Originally, 25 properties required permanent land rights and 53 required temporary land rights to make an eight-foot wide sidewalk, with space to accommodate the future addition of a northbound bike lane. One hundred-and-eleven large trees as well as 165 small trees and bushes were to be removed. Three retaining walls were also going to be built along with some concrete refuge islands at crosswalks to facilitate traffic calming measures.
Following a series of modifications based on feedback from the April 2018 meeting and small group meetings the county hosted throughout February and March, Fairfax County Department of Transportation project manager Mark Van Zandt unveiled the updated blueprint for Sleepy Hollow Road, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare and the subject of the redesign.
Properties that require permanent land rights now total 16, with the largest example being 302 square feet to construct a curb on Bay Tree Lane. The number of large trees being cut down dropped to 28, with small trees and bushes being felled reduced to 72. Only one shortened retaining wall will be built.
Van Zandt highlighted how the sidewalk width has been reduced from eight feet to six feet with a two foot grass buffer and is even narrower in some spots. Furthermore, the sidewalk has moved from residents’ yards and into the streetside parking lane when possible.
Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross told the News-Press that this is part of an effort to retrofit neighborhoods that didn’t take into account modern trends when first constructed. She also clarified that the $6 million cost of the project was already designated years earlier out of $110 million in joint funding between federal, state and county sources, so no new money is required for its completion.
“Now when we build communities [and] neighborhoods, sidewalks are pretty much required. Much of Mason District didn’t have those requirements, so we’re trying to make up for that,” Gross said.
During the Q&A portion of the meeting on Monday some residents expressed that they felt the sidewalks weren’t necessary, and the county won’t tackle the road’s main problems of speed and congestion.
Some attendees suggested a residential speed limit with an increased fine, similar to the one-mile stretch of East Broad Street on the City of Falls Church’s border with Seven Corners that also occupies a state road in Route 7. FCDOT director Tom Biesiadny explained to the News-Press that the City’s independent status allows it greater flexibility to alter its roadways as opposed to the more uniform approach VDOT applies to counties.
Biesiadny elaborated that if a residential speed limit was to be installed, a speed study would typically be done — and that’s what residents want. However, Biesiadny added that VDOT’s suggested speed limit takes the speed that 85 percent of vehicles travel as the standard, which he couldn’t confirm would give residents their desired result.
Ralph Buehler, an associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria center, informed the News-Press that the traffic calming measures the project intends to use do mitigate speed concerns. For instance, the curb extensions and raised median “refuge islands” at crosswalks the project plans to build are empirically effective ways at convincing drivers to slow down while keeping pedestrians safe and aware of traffic.
Gross added separately that digital monitors — again, such as the one on E. Broad St. — could factor into controlling speed, as well as continuing enforcement of speed by police, who she says have been responsive despite the lack of areas to pull over drivers safely. James Hickey, a Sleepy Hollow Road resident, doesn’t feel assessing speed is the priority for police in the area though. He often sees them nabbing drivers using the bike lane at the intersection of Sleepy Hollow Road and Columbia Pike to cheat their way into the right turn lane more than anything else.
Hickey also believes the congestion during rush hour, caused by a deluge of activity outside of the Congressional School and nearby Sleepy Hollow Elementary that can prolong his commute anywhere from 15 – 45 minutes, needs a workaround. Residents at the meeting wondered how the emergency and garbage disposal services would acclimate to the infrastructure changes, too, given the road only has one north and southbound lane.
Gross acknowledged the nature of the road as a hybrid residential and commuter route for the past 50 years is unlikely to change. Buehler, independently, noted the road’s duality makes its congestion a hard circle to square, but if traffic calming measures are properly spaced out it could reduce both speed and volume on the road, ideally avoiding the general concern that drivers will simply re-accelerate in between crosswalks while potentially persuading other commuters to find alternative routes.
The Sleepy Hollow Walkway Project’s design plans will be completed by Winter 2020, with land acquisition starting later that spring. The entire project intends to be finished by November 2021.