CHARLES TOWN – The watercolor-style illustrations sketched promises of idyllic, orderly Americana suburban living. The master plan drawings envisioned a community of tidy two-story homes and townhouses clustered along tree-lined sidewalks, where strolling residents would routinely encounter friendly waves from neighbors relaxing in rocking chairs on shady front porches.
Nearby shops and offices could make driving seem almost obsolete. Add to the picture broad, grassy public lawns open to the sky, a comfortable community clubhouse and a big, splashy pool for the kids. A paved trail would make visiting downtown Charles Town an easy bike ride away.
Two decades ago, that was Huntfield, a 3,200-home development on 1,000 acres that is only partly realized today. The Great Recession halted the mixed-use community project that arose from a former apple orchard on the outskirts of Charles Town.
Huntfield was modeled off the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a development for 8,000 residents that followed what has become known as Traditional Neighborhood or New Urbanist design principles.
“With the Huntfield plan, it was our hope, and still is our hope, that it would be a beautifully done development that would complement and enhance Charles Town,” said Randy Hilton, who was Charles Town’s mayor when the large-scale development was first proposed.
About 400 single-family homes, many with porches and picket fences, were built on the former orchard field. Pedestrian-friendly sidewalks are there, as well as some grassy open spaces. Washington High School arose on land dedicated to the Board of Education. But none of the shops in 200,000 square feet of office and retail spaces were built. There’s no clubhouse, pool or trail to the downtown.
What was approved through a property annexation deal—about 1,900 single-family houses, 900 townhomes and 400 apartments or condos, along with 200,000-square-feet of retail and office spaces—came about after hard-fought, detailed negotiations between city officials and a now long-gone original developer.
Hilton was among a committee of city leaders who negotiated the 2002 annexation agreement with the original developer, Greenvest of Vienna, Virginia. The agreement sets up $7,332 city impact fees for each single-family home built (but lesser fees for townhomes and apartment units); a traffic impact study plan; a state program that would be involved in cleaning up arsenic contamination in the property’s former orchard soil; and the construction of the still-elusive hiker and biker trail toward downtown.
But last summer a new developer operating in 10 states, Dan Ryan Builders based in Rockville, Maryland, has purchased the undeveloped portion of the Huntfield property. That property purchase included development rights negotiated over for the original annexation deal—an annexation deal that Dan Ryan wants to update, charging outdated terms in some places and wholly renegotiating other terms.
In particular, Dan Ryan hopes to lower its impact fees to $2,448 for every single-family home and $2,000 for every townhome, apartment or condominium. The developer wants to count stormwater management grassy areas toward a 15 percent public open space requirement. It also wants the option to forgo the New urbanist” planning concepts, including “rear-loading” garages accessed through back alleyways.
Those garage positions draw a considerable amount of parking away from streets facing front yards in Huntfield, a feature several residents said helps foster a pedestrian-friendly character they want to preserve.
A 4,200-home community was proposed initially for Huntfield, but the annexation agreement—which was later amended in 2004 and 2005—pared that number back by 1,000 units.
Even still, over what has already been approved, the community Dan Ryan can finish could double Charles Town’s current population of 6,000. About 160 homes have been green approved for construction, and the developer has an unrestricted right to build more than 2,600 other homes, townhomes and apartments after passing standard city reviews.
On Nov. 4, Dan Ryan representatives met with a committee of three city officials to explain the updates and modifications they hope to renegotiate. The meeting was recorded and the proposed annexation changes are posted beside the meeting recording.
“We’re ready to move,” said Matt Powell, vice president of land and acquisitions for Dan Ryan. “We’d like to start building as soon as possible. We’re working through all the contracts.”
Powell said construction should begin on 160 lots already approved for constructing single-family homes and townhomes. “It’s not going to take us a whole lot to finish those lots,” he said. “So our plan right now is to do that.”
Last week Charles Town’s current mayor, Bob Trainor, and two City Council members, Huntfield residents, Jeff Hynes and Kevin Tester, held a public discussion with residents to get their early feedback on any future annexation renegotiation.
“We really have not begun negotiations,” Trainor told the residents.
The mayor said the negotiations with Dan Ryan will be conducted openly. A public hearing on any proposed final agreement, he said, will ultimately be held before the city’s council votes to approve the agreement. The public will also have at least two weeks to review any proposed changes before a vote is taken to adopt them, he added.
About 80 people attended the discussion in the cafeteria of Page Jackson Elementary School. Several Huntfield residents said Dan Ryan’s renewed development shouldn’t disrupt the Huntfield’s current look and pedestrian feel. A few said more concrete deadlines should be ironed out to have community amenities such as the clubhouse, pool or trail built soon.
One resident voiced concern that additional roadway entrances, such as planned access off and onto Summit Point Road, might draw additional traffic from non-residents through the neighborhood.
But applause arose from comments that the city has no incentive to make major concessions from the current annexation agreement. The residents pointed out that Dan Ryan purchased the undeveloped Huntfield property knowing the current terms of the annexation agreement.
“My concern overall is that Dan Ryan is trying to clarify things ... in their favor,” said Huntfield resident Kevin Derr. “The whole point here is what is Dan Ryan doing as a developer to make this better for Charles Town.”