John ‘Til’ Hazel Jr., lawyer and developer who transformed Virginia suburbs, dies at 91

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Over five decades, Mr. Hazel harnessed the region’s post-World War II population boom to build highways, suburban subdivisions and shopping centers, forever altering the way Washingtonians live.

Like many real estate developers, Mr. Hazel was not a public figure but had an enormous impact. With his crew cut and Virginia drawl, he came across to many as a charming and affable country squire. But the Harvard-
educated lawyer was a deft politician who enjoyed a powerful and lasting influence behind the scenes for decades as Northern Virginia became a player in government contracting, technology and higher education.

He cultivated powerful friends in development and politics, including Maryland developer Milton V. Peterson, his business partner for 20 years; and Tysons Corner Center developer Ted Lerner. Local power brokers invoked his name with awe.

“Til Hazel defined Northern Virginia,” said George Johnson, George Mason University’s president from 1978 to 1996. “He imagined it, he brought it about, he led it and behind the scenes did more building of the community than anyone. He tried to give it an identity.”

First as a land-use lawyer and later as a developer, Mr. Hazel stamped his imprint on much of the region. He argued for the right to condemn land for the Capital Beltway and went on to develop homes now occupied by
1 in every 10 residents of Fairfax County. He won myriad legal battles against environmentalists and other growth opponents that reaffirmed property rights and allowed building to proceed.

He was a force behind the rise to prominence of GMU, acquiring land and lobbying for a school of law in Arlington, Va., giving money and marshaling the support of Northern Virginia’s business community to nurture the school’s expansion. To the end, he fought for a second Beltway through Loudoun and Prince William counties that would snake around Northern Virginia’s outer suburbs into Maryland but was stymied by a lack of funding and political will.

Mr. Hazel attributed his success — and considerable fortune — to a vision of a future far removed from his childhood plowing the fields of the family farm his father bought in the 1940s in a rural Virginia crossroads called McLean. Mr. Hazel embodied — and was in large part responsible for — Fairfax County’s sophistication as a corporate headquarters, cultural center and a center of safe suburban neighborhoods.

“A blind man could see the potential,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2001. “Fairfax was the frontier. It was open to ideas.”

The price of success was frequent confrontation with public officials and activists disaffected by the byproducts of the growth for which Mr. Hazel had paved the way.

Detractors accused him of ravaging the countryside with quarter-acre lots and cars stuck in gridlock. In 1988, preservationists stopped him from building a shopping mall at the Manassas National Battlefield Park, a fight that led the federal government to condemn the land.

Mr. Hazel’s mantra was consistent to the end: Developers could improve life in a region poised for growth, while narrow-minded civic activists (he called them “antis”) and government officials always ruined things. It made no sense for local politicians to erase future roads from planning maps to satisfy anti-growth activists if the demand for jobs and houses was there.

In 1987, Audrey Moore was swept in as the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairwoman on an anti-growth wave. But she had served as a county supervisor since 1972, when Mr. Hazel was pressing successfully to open watershed areas to water and sewer lines for development.

“I went up against him as hard as I knew how,” Moore recalled. “He was playing real-life Monopoly in Fairfax, buying land cheap and getting it rezoned to the kind of development he wanted. I don’t think it was positive.”

John Tilghman Hazel Jr. was born in Washington on Oct. 29, 1930. He grew up in Arlington, where his father was a surgeon. A grandfather was president of an Arlington bank, and an uncle was the Arlington commonwealth’s attorney.

After the elder Hazel bought a farm in McLean with hopes of raising crops to feed the family during the Depression, Til would often bicycle or hitchhike the eight miles from Arlington after school to plow the fields.

In 1947, he enrolled at Harvard University, where he completed undergraduate and law degrees, and then served a stretch in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He returned to Northern Virginia in 1957, taking a job with a law firm in Arlington.

Mr. Hazel’s roommate as he crammed for the Virginia bar exam was John N. Dalton, the state’s future Republican governor. The resulting friendship with Dalton and other powerful Virginia figures — including Rep. Stanford E. Parris (R-Va.), with whom he hunted in Alaska — would later improve his access and polish his aura of invincibility.

Mr. Hazel was married to Marion “Jinx” Engle for 41 years until her death in 1995. His second wife, the former Anne Barnett Merrill, whom he married in 1997, died in December.

In addition to his son, of Fredericksburg, Va., survivors include three children from his first marriage, LeighAnn Hazel-Groux and John T. “Jack” Hazel III, both of Broad Run, and James W. Hazel of Charlottesville; two stepsons, R. Searing Merrill III and William Merrill, both of Tampa; 15 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. Hazel’s firm was hired to condemn land for a road that came to be called the Capital Beltway. Mr. Hazel argued those cases, becoming an expert on zoning, acquisition and eminent domain.

Then, as Fairfax leaders welcomed growth, he was the go-to lawyer to get land rezoned. In the early 1960s, he served three years as a District Court judge in the county and was a lieutenant in the political machine of then-Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. (D-Va.). At the time, the machine’s power was held by large landowners.

Mr. Hazel started his own full-time law practice in 1966, and, by the early 1970s, he had emerged as the most prominent zoning lawyer in Virginia. He represented Lerner, who built Tysons Corner Center and the Tysons II shopping, office and hotel complex.

Around this time, Fairfax County government was rocked by zoning scandals. Bribes had become a way of doing business in many quarters before federal and state authorities cleaned house.

One of those charged was a state senator and political boss named Andrew W. Clarke, who hired Mr. Hazel to represent him. Mr. Hazel argued that his client should be excused from trial for poor health, a defense the commonwealth’s attorney derided as phony until Clarke died in 1968, shortly after the charges were dismissed.

The scandals resulted in bribery convictions of three county supervisors and deepened the concerns of many residents about the county’s rapid growth. By 1971, voters had elected a local board that tried to put the brakes on development. Mr. Hazel, on behalf of developers, fought the politicians at every turn. He had little trouble scoring victories that overturned many restrictions on building and requirements that builders set aside affordable housing.

In 1972, Mr. Hazel became a developer himself, joining forces with Peterson, a hard-driving developer with a reputation for striking deals. The Hazel/Peterson Cos. built Burke Centre, a planned community of 15,000 people second only to Reston. Other big projects followed, including Franklin Farm near Washington Dulles International Airport; Fair Lakes, a residential and office complex on 657 acres in western Fairfax; and Fairfax Station, a high-end subdivision off Route 123.

In 1984, Mr. Hazel became the first Virginia president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a leading business group. Four years later, Hazel/Peterson paid $11 million for 542 acres in Prince William County.

The plan was to develop the land into a mixed-use complex of homes, offices and a shopping mall. The Williams Center stood on Stuart Hill, the site of Robert E. Lee’s command during the Second Battle of Manassas, in 1862.

Preservationists and civic activists mobilized quickly to save the historic Civil War site. It was a bitter fight, pitting Mr. Hazel’s view of progress against history buffs, and it drew international attention. Congress eventually condemned the property and preserved it as an addition to the national battlefield park. The federal government gave Hazel/Peterson an $81 million buyout.

The real estate partnership was dissolved in 1991 as a second generation took separate paths. Mr. Hazel returned to practicing law, and he and Peterson remained friends.

In his last years, living on his 50-acre estate in Fauquier County, Mr. Hazel saw a political climate increasingly turned against his views. County boards in Northern Virginia seesawed between nurturing growth and curtailing it, but the tide had turned against single-family homes in distant suburbs. “Sprawl” became a watchword — and not a good one — for the empire Mr. Hazel had built.

He remained convinced that local leaders had no vision for where to put new people and jobs. He dismissed the massive city-style redevelopment planned for Tysons Corner, saying the Silver Line under construction to Dulles would do little to relieve road congestion.

Asked to respond to the criticism that he was among the region’s biggest contributors to suburban sprawl, Mr. Hazel told The Washington Post in 2010: “I made up my mind early — better to be respected than loved. I have always had a fundamental commitment to growth, prosperity and people, and the antis are against all three.

“I don’t make any apologies, I don’t defend it, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to me.”

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