The Mount Vernon District of Fairfax County is physically divided by the sprawling Fort Belvoir military base, a sort of modern-day Mason-Dixon Line in an area that is sometimes at odds with itself.
To the north and to the south, civic groups function apart from one another, clashing at times over who gets more resources and more desirable development and who has more problems with traffic and other suburban ills.
With Gerald W. Hyland (D), the county supervisor who has represented Mount Vernon for nearly three decades, preparing to retire, four Democrats will compete in a June 9 primary for the chance to represent an area that can feel like two distinct districts.
The candidates all say that they want to unite Mount Vernon and boost quality of life for all residents. But they have different ideas for how to do it.
Local business owner Candice Bennett calls for workforce housing. County Human Services Council member Jack Dobbyn says he wants high-density development that will draw sought-after retail. Fairfax County School Board member Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon) talks about bringing health-care workers to live near two major hospitals. And Planning Commissioner Tim Sargeant says the unevenly developed Route 1 corridor must be improved — but not remade into a poor imitation of Reston or Tysons Corner.
At political forums in recent weeks, the candidates agreed with residents who complained of deteriorating sewer lines and other infrastructure, troubled schools and a sense that the district was falling behind other parts of the county.
“Fairfax County is on the rise; it’s growing,” Dobbyn, 33, said. “But it feels like we’re in the shade somehow. We need to take the shade off of Mount Vernon and move forward together.”
Hyland has represented Mount Vernon since 1988, ushering in improvements that include plans for a $188- million mixed-income development on the site of the former Lorton prison.
During that time, the district in southeastern Fairfax has changed from a quiet community with breathtaking views of the Potomac River and historic tourist attractions — including George Washington’s estate — to a fast-growing area of 127,000 residents beset by unevenly performing schools, clogged roads and pockets of poverty.
The district stretches south from Alexandria into Lorton. Its voters have consistently backed Democratic candidates — including President Obama during both of his presidential campaigns — and the winner of the upcoming primary will have that advantage in November’s general election against Republican nominee Jane Gandee.
Hyland has not endorsed any of the candidates and did not respond to requests for comment on the election. Civic groups say that the area’s complex needs require a strong leader to fill his shoes.
“There’s a huge divide in this district,” said Nick Firth, president of the South County Federation, a Lorton-based group of homeowners and civic associations. “One big question for the next person is: ‘How are you going to handle the relationship between the two parts?’”
Bennett and Sargeant live in the district’s southern section. Dobbyn and Storck are residents of the north. All four candidates said they want balanced development and vowed to focus more on Route 1, which straddles the Mount Vernon and Lee districts and is the area’s main commercial corridor — and another source of divide. While recently opened shopping centers on the Lee side thrum with activity, the aging businesses and car title loan companies on the Mount Vernon side are far less appealing for residents.
A massive road-widening project near Fort Belvoir is supposed to eventually ease congestion along Route 1 and open up new development opportunities. There is a plan to build 329 apartments and 144 townhouses on 33 acres lining the highway, which has sparked a debate over affordable housing and density in the area — already home to three trailer-park communities and to schools that have among the county’s highest proportions of students on free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.
Holly Dougherty, executive director of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses worry about an over-concentration of poverty without enough resources or jobs to serve low-income residents.
“We all feel the need to help people,” Dougherty said. “But you get to a point where you’re not helping people when you’re putting them into schools that are failing or areas where there is no employment.”
Sargeant, 60, says his 13 years as a county planning commissioner will help him bring new energy to the area. “We’re not going to be Tysons or going to be Reston,” Sargeant said. “It will be our version of that kind of new development for the future of the Route 1 corridor.”
Storck, 61, who co-founded a Washington-based health group that offers holistic care to patients, said he wants to market new housing to people who work at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital and the new Fort Belvoir Community Hospital for military veterans.
“There’s an opportunity to attract people with those skills,” Storck said. “These are underutilized, underdeveloped assets of Mount Vernon.”
Bennett, 39, said she wants to create more workforce housing for teachers, firefighters and police officers. “They need to live close to where they work, but how do they do that on their salaries?” said Bennett, who owns a marketing research company for businesses and nonprofit groups.
Dobbyn — who owns a social media marketing company for real estate agents — said he supports higher density development to lure restaurants and retail stores that voters say they want. “That’s what they’re looking for: population density,” Dobbyn said about new businesses. “People who have money to buy their products.”
But in some of Fairfax County’s oldest neighborhoods, such talk brings additional worries. Sabrina Campbell, who lives near Washington’s estate, said the aging sewer lines in her neighborhood are becoming overburdened, leading to floods outside her house during heavy rains.
“A lot of the infrastructure that we have is severely lacking and behind,” Campbell said during a recent candidates’ forum.
Storck said that voters are upset by signs of disrepair in the area. “There’s a lot of pride in Mount Vernon, and people see with their own eyes how it’s changing,” he said.
Gale McBrien, who recently moved back to her home in a leafy neighborhood after years of living in Mexico, said she was surprised by the levels of poverty in some portions of Mount Vernon and the hulking McMansions that have been erected in other parts.
“This is not the same community I left,” McBrien said one recent day after Bennett knocked on her door in search of a vote. “So much has changed.”