In Potomac Yard’s quest for smart growth, wetlands end up on the chopping block

By: - September 10, 2019 12:01 am
Potomac Yard, Alexandria, Virginia, 1980s

Aerial view of Potomac Yard in Arlington County and Alexandria, Virginia, 1980s. With population in Alexandria and Arlington County growing, the rail yard is being redeveloped. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress)

SANDSTON — A dozen people turned out to the State Water Control Board’s meeting Friday to voice their support for the destruction of an acre and a half of wetlands along the Potomac River in the name of environmental responsibility.

Once, such an argument would have been unthinkable. But as the swelling urgency of climate change has driven environmental concerns into arenas where once they would have been considered irrelevant, such as worker protections and racial justice, environmental calculations have become more nuanced, less consumed by saving particular patches of earth and more preoccupied with preserving increasingly scarce resources in the long run.

“We are a conservation-based organization, and we have fought to protect wetlands, and we recognize the wetlands impacts here,” Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, told the board. “But we believe the net environmental impacts strongly outweigh the impact to the wetlands.”

Schwartz, like the 11 other people who spoke before the Water Control Board in favor of jettisoning the wetlands, was urging the board to issue a water protection permit for the construction of the proposed Potomac Yard Metrorail station.

And with little fanfare, the citizen body did.

In doing so, they signed off on a location between the George Washington National Parkway and existing tracks owned by CSX that will permanently eradicate about 1.5 acres of non-tidal emergent and forested wetlands and temporarily impact another 2 acres during construction. (The station has already received permission from the National Park Service to intrude on the parkway’s scenic easement.)

To compensate for those lost wetlands, Alexandria will have to purchase just over six credits from the Buena Vista Wetland Mitigation Bank in King George County.

Not everyone agreed that the right place to site the new Metro station — the first added to Washington, D.C.’s subway system since 2004 — was on the parcels that include the wetlands.

“Alexandria should have picked another location for its new Metro station, one that didn’t denigrate the parkway’s historic character or harm wetlands,” former Alexandria Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald wrote in an impassioned editorial for the Washington Post in October 2018. “Environmentalists are right to be furious about this mess.”

Of the 76 comments the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality received on the plan, 31 opposed the chosen site. One of their primary arguments, according to DEQ staff, was that the wetlands had been poorly delineated and would be negatively impacted by the project.

But at Friday’s meeting, the wetlands’ loss was uniformly treated as regrettable but necessary to meet the demands of projected population growth. Alexandria is the most densely populated place in Virginia, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and its numbers are expected to increase with the arrival of Amazon’s new offices, the so-called “HQ2,” and Virginia Tech’s new “Innovation Campus,” both of which will be sited in the Potomac Yard area.

City officials and members of the public portrayed the proposed station site as the linchpin of a dense development plan built around mass transit rather than the suburban sprawl that characterizes much of Northern Virginia. That sprawl, many noted, negatively impacts the environment by increasing greenhouse gas emissions and harming water quality. (Because of the large amount of impervious surface they provide, roadways and parking lots are the most notorious contributors to stormwater runoff that channels pollution into waterways.)

“Our city planners have to find a way to maximize the use of the valuable land we have,” Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks said. “This means we have to grow vertically, and we cannot sprawl horizontally.”

Tom Kaiden, chief operating officer of tourism nonprofit Visit Alexandria, concurred, calling it “critical in terms of the environment, health and congestion that we maximize our access to public transit to reduce auto emissions.”

To Schwartz, of the Coalition for Smart Growth, the matter was one not only of emissions, but of land use.

Transit-oriented development, he said, “significantly reduces the amount of land we will consume and the highways we will need to build in the region, reducing the amount of forests, streams and wetlands we will impact.”

With the Water Control Board’s approval of the project secured, the city now only needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed.

Alexandria is not the only locality in Virginia to view transportation decisions as part of a broader environmental framework. Among others, Charlottesville has also cited vehicles as one contributor to carbon emissions in its climate action plan, while Richmond’s sustainability roadmap encourages the development of multimodal transportation systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.