Gum Springs to Fairfax County: "Earn our trust."
Editorial Update: In a Feb. 22 email to Gum Springs residents and other community stakeholders, Queenie Cox alleged that New Gum Springs Civic Association bylaws were violated in the Feb. 15 electing of new officers.
About 70 Gum Springs residents, including the newly elected officers of the New Gum Springs Civic Association, lambasted Fairfax County officials for what they termed years of neglect and disrespect at a Feb. 16 meeting at the Gum Springs Community Center.
The meeting was organized by Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck and the county's Chief Equity Officer Karla Bruce, along with Neighborhood and Community Services, to discuss issues raised over the past few years by the community. Two topics were on the agenda: How can the county and Gum Springs build a better relationship? And what are the priorities of the Gum Springs community?
Gum Springs, founded in 1833 by West Ford — who was freed from slavery and given land by the family of George Washington — is the oldest African American community in Fairfax County.
The meeting was triggered by the proposed development of 65 townhouses called West Ford Manor on the corner of Richmond Highway and Sherwood Hall Lane, which had split the New Gum Springs Civic Association. Anti-townhouse officer candidates won an election the night before the community meeting with Vincent Carter replacing Queenie Cox as president, and local activist Mattie Palmore becoming vice president. Cox had previously offered civic association support for the townhouse development to get into the planning process.
At the meeting Storck promised to keep the townhouse development on hold until the Gum Springs community supported it. Opponents said the project was too dense and not in keeping with a conservation land use plan the community had adopted eight years ago but which the county allegedly had ignored. The conservation plan envisioned a low-density, residential community “with a sense of place where Black people could own property and have a place to live,” according to Ron Chase, president of the Gum Springs Historical Society and member of the civic association. “We don’t want to be Mosaic or McLean,” he said.
Gum Springs is under development pressure because it encompasses two planned Richmond Highway Bus Rapid Transit stations as part of a $1 billion redevelopment plan for the highway promoting mixed-use high density near transit stations.
Bruce and Storck, as well as top county officials at the meeting, including Director of Housing and Community Development Tom Fleetwood, acknowledged the existence of the conservation plan, but all said it had been derailed before their tenure, and they could not explain what had happened to it. Although they had the plan, Bruce said, they did not have the authority to move forward with it.
County documents show that neighborhood conservation plans were developed in the late 1970s through the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority to preserve affordable housing and neighborhood stability and prevent commercial encroachment. Gum Springs’ conservation plan was adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 1979, amended in 1990 and expired in 2004. A new conservation plan was developed in 2015.
Conservation plans often covered the same areas as the neighborhood improvement plans, which were developed in the 1990s by 26 county neighborhoods for a now-defunct Housing and Urban Development grant program to improve street infrastructure in blighted neighborhoods.
In 2015, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors accepted a staff recommendation to delete references to both types of neighborhood plans in the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan, saying that many of the objectives had been accomplished and that remaining guidance was incorporated into the overall Comprehensive Plan.
Bruce suggested the community start a new process of envisioning how they want the neighborhood to develop.
Several community members at the meeting balked, stating they had put a lot of effort into the 2015 conservation plan and wanted feedback from the county before starting over.
“You never responded to that plan and now you want us to start over? How can we trust you to respond this time?” asked one resident.
Frustrations with the county ran deep. A quick poll showed that 63 percent of the attendees had lived in the area for more than 20 years. Linda Brown, a community activist participating in a small group session, said the county would have to earn the trust of the community, given the history.
Chase has repeatedly accused the county of honoring the community with rhetoric but dishonoring it by pushing density, including very low-income rental housing developments rather than opportunities for Black homeownership.
Addressing the crowd, Bruce said, “There had to be a point at which the county came to stand flat-footed before the community. You have every reason not to trust Fairfax County. I ask you to allow this opportunity for the county to express an apology and a desire to move forward.”
She noted that the meeting would be just the beginning of a conversation to repair the relationship and work out a new community plan.
Palmore, newly elected vice president of the civic association, took the microphone to say, “We are moving forward whether or not you want to come.” She cited major community issues as lack of jobs and the need for job training, affordable housing and eviction protection.
Asked for his reaction after the meeting, Carter said, “I think they were checking off a box. We will find out later. We want that townhouse development taken off the books permanently.”
The townhouse development is one of many proposed developments coming before the Fairfax County Planning Commission March 2 as part of a countywide Site Specific Plan Amendment process. Although Storck promised to withhold his support for the project if the community opposed it, he said he would not ask for it to be taken off the list of projects going before the Planning Commission.
Following the meeting, Carter made arrangements with Storck for a follow-up meeting to discuss matters further.