NEW: Pimmit Hills residents brace for court battle over gas pipeline planned through neighborhood

Pimmit Hills community members rally against Washington Gas’ proposed natural gas pipeline in 2020 (courtesy Devin Buries)

Cheers went up after the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) ruled last year that a natural gas pipeline planned through the residential neighborhood of Pimmit Hills will need to be reviewed and approved by the county.

However, even when proposing that decision on Feb. 2, 2022 after a multi-day public hearing, BZA Vice Chairman James Hart acknowedged that the case over the sixth phase of Washington Gas’ Strip 1 Tysons project was likely headed to court.

That court date will arrive this month. The utility company’s lawsuit seeking to vacate the board’s decision will go before a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge for a trial on April 25 and 26, spurring Pimmit Hills residents to rally together once again in opposition to the pipeline.

“We’re concerned citizens, you know. It’s our neighborhoods, our streets, our children, our playgrounds, our schools,” said Kurt Iselt, one of four residents named as defendants in the lawsuit after they brought the case to the BZA.

The challenged pipeline segment is the last stage of a push by Washington Gas to upgrade its natural gas infrastructure in the Tysons area, replacing a 14-inch-wide line with a 2-feet-wide, high-pressure one.

In the works since 2012, the overall project will span approximately five miles from Tyco Road to a regulator station at the Pimmit Drive and Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) intersection.

Phase six will be routed from Peabody Drive to Cherri Drive and Pimmit Drive to Route 7 —  right through the heart of Pimmit Hills. Washington Gas had considered an alternate route along Magarity Road and Route 7 but said construction would take longer and bring more disruptions.

The planned Strip 1 Tysons pipeline route. An alternative path, in green, was proposed for the sixth phase (via Google Maps)

After initially denying it twice, the Virginia Department of Transportation approved a permit for the project in 2019, despite opposition from residents and local and state politicians representing the area.

At the request of Islet and fellow residents Christina Chen Zinner, Sarah Ellis and Lillian Whitesell, a county zoning administrator reviewed the project and decided it qualified as a “light utility facility” exempt from local regulation per the county’s zoning ordinance (page 241), which hadn’t yet been struck down.

The lawsuit by Washington Gas argues that the BZA lacked the authority to partially overturn the zoning administrator’s determination and require the project to obtain a special exception permit and undergo a 2232 review.

“Phase 6 is part of [the] Petitioner’s ‘ordinary distribution system’ that delivers natural gas to its customers and located in a VDOT right-of-way. Accordingly, Phase 6 is exempt from the zoning ordinance,” the petition filed on March 3, 2022 states, asserting that the BZA’s decision violated “decades of precedent” and state law.

The petition also argues that the Pimmit Hills residents haven’t shown that they would “suffer concrete, particularized harm” from the pipeline’s construction and, therefore, had no legal standing to appeal the zoning administrator’s decision.

The residents contend that the size and high-pressure nature of the proposed pipe makes it far from “ordinary,” particularly for a residential neighborhood already grappling with an aging sewer system and frequent construction to update or replace 1950s-era houses.

“There’s a reason these ordinances and these safety measures are in place,” Zinner said, recalling a 2021 gas explosion that injured workers in Springfield and a leak in February that closed key Reston roads. “We don’t want them to take a shortcut around this because it might save them some money, but these are our families, our children, our elderly community that are at risk, and it’s just we value people over profits.”

A Washington Gas spokesperson said the company “does not comment on pending litigation.”

While only four residents are involved in the lawsuit, their call for the pipeline to be rerouted — or at least go through the county’s zoning review process — has broad support. A Gofundme page started by the Pimmit Hills Citizens’ Association to help cover their legal fees has raised over $21,000, nearing its $23,000 goal.

Travis Sloane learned about the project after moving into Pimmit Hills in 2020. The pipeline will be about 20 feet from his living room on a street where he walks his 4-year-old daughter to day care, he says.

“If you want to have that quintessential idea of David and Goliath, a utility company is trying to do all of this, and none of us have those deep pockets,” he said. “…But I think it speaks volumes that the community is willing to come together on such an important issue and where we all stand on it.”