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Obituary: Heidi Merkel, Fairfax County Planner Instrumental in Reston Master Plan

by Karen Goff July 25, 2016 at 1:15 pm 10 Comments

Heidi Merkel/Fairfax CountyHeidi Merkel, a senior planner with the Fairfax Department of Planning and Zoning who was instrumental in organizing and implementing the Reston Master Plan Special Study and plan amendment, died of cancer July 19. She was 49.

Merkel, of Arlington, is survived by her husband, Bill, and three children: Caroline, 15; Samuel, 12; and Caleb, 7; her father, Leland Tolo of West Hartford, Ct.; her brother, Paul Tolo, and sister-in-law, Jennifer Tolo, of Sammamish, Wash.; and her many beloved nieces and nephews.

Merkel attended high school in West Hartford, Ct., then received her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College and studied Urban and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She began her professional career as an Associate Planner for the City of Danbury.

Merkel joined Fairfax County’s Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) in 1995. She later took five years off to raise her family, but after returning in 2007, she worked tirelessly to help move Reston into the future.

The Master Plan amendments were approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2014 and ’15.

“Heidi was a gem,” said land use lawyer Mark Looney, who served on the Reston Master Plan Special Study Task Force. The task force held dozens of meetings over four years, and Merkel attended most of them, even while battling her illness.

“She was so thoughtful and patient as she interacted with the Reston community through the years,” added Looney. “She would listen intently to every crackpot idea some developer or resident threw out and make them think there was nothing better. Heidi knew that deep down most people just want to know that they were heard.”

Some of the additional projects Merkel worked on in Reston:

  • She was the Staff Liaison to the Hunter Mill Area Plans Review (APR) Task Force.
  • In 1998, she was the lead planner on the plan amendment for the Reston Sheraton area, which helped to resolve a legal dispute between the property owners and the county.
  • She led the Dulles Corridor Land Use Study in 2001, which was the first effort to plan for rail in the corridor.
  • She led the planning study of the Lake Anne Village Center in 2009, which set the vision and plan for future redevelopment of Reston’s first village center.

“Heidi was a gifted planner who loved the Reston community that she served,” said Fred Selden, Director of Fairfax Planning and Zoning. “Heidi led policy initiatives that resulted in county policy supporting Transit-Oriented Development and the inclusion of affordable workforce housing in all mixed-use activity centers. She received numerous individual and team recognitions for outstanding performance and commendations over the years from Supervisor Hudgins and others.”

Heidi and her family were long-time members of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where she volunteered with the youth programs and participated in the bell choirs. She enjoyed spending time with her children most of all, and was an active parent at both Potomac Crescent Waldorf School and the Washington Waldorf School.

There will be a memorial service at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 3022 Woodlawn Ave., Falls Church, on Saturday, Aug. 27 at 11 am, with a lunch reception to follow in the church’s fellowship hall.

Memorial donations may be made to the Inova Life with Cancer Family Center at www.lifewithcancer.org/donate.

Photo Courtesy Fairfax County

  • Bill Bouie

    This is so sad. Heidi was a joy to work with. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family and loved ones. May she rest in peace.

  • Colin Mills

    I’m tremendously saddened to hear this news. Heidi was a terrific planner, extremely professional and patient and friendly. The Master Plan task force was a long and challenging process with a lot of differing viewpoints, but Heidi was a constant through it all. DPZ and all of Fairfax County are better off for the time she shared with us. I’ll miss her terribly.

  • Ken Knueven

    This is extremely sad news, Heidi was one of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met. Her contributions, leadership, patience and generous personality moved Reston forward in so many ways. She will be missed.

  • EliteinReston

    I only “knew” Heidi from news articles but she seemed like a sensible public servant who had Reston’s best interests at heart.
    (Why couldn’t Looney just leave it at, “Heidi was a gem.” You want “crackpot” ideas? The dangerous design of the kiss and ride lot at Comstock’s Wiehle Ave. Metro station. Charging parking fees on weekdays at Reston Town Center…)

  • Leila Gordon

    It was a joy to work with Heidi and no one cared more about the future of Reston from a planning perspective. She had a marvelous sense of humor, deep appreciation for Reston’s history and its people, and tremendous patience and curiosity. Heidi was the living embodiment of courage as she quietly absorbed the challenge of having cancer. She will always be part of Reston and remembered here with love and gratitude. Her family, friends and colleagues are in my heart.

  • Tammi Petrine

    My heart breaks for Heidi’s family. She was one in a million. She had patience and fortitude as she tried valiantly to satisfy the disparate needs of residents, developers and her county supervisors. She was bright and caring always to all people. She was pregnant with Caleb during the Reston master planning process and never missed a beat. Even when she was diagnosed, her ‘can do” attitude carried us who cared so deeply for her to believing that if anyone one could overcome illness, it would be Heidi. After her amputation, she wore bright pink sneakers into work to proclaim her determination and planned which extreme sports she would undertake to shake the cancer from her soul. Reston is a better place for Heidi’s work with us over the years. We who admired and loved her are deeply grieved by her death.

  • John Lovaas

    This is sad news indeed. Heidi was a consummate professional with the patience of Job. She spent years working on Reston issues with all the interest groups, painstakingly listening and recording their inputs into Master Plan or area plans, such as Lake Anne’s. Fairfax County has lost one of its very best and Reston has lost an understanding and caring friend.

  • Robert Pew

    Judy and I thought Heidi was so helpful on the Master Plan Task force. We both attended the school she taught to prepare us for the rules we had to follow. She joined us on a walk around Arlington to see what a community geared to modern living was like. She was as much a part of Reston as those of us who live here. Thank you much Heidi for all of your work on our behalf.

  • Terry Maynard

    As RCA’s representative to the Master Plan Task Force, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to work with Heidi. As others have said, she was an extremely good listener who was always open to different points of view and new ideas. More than anything else, I valued her integrity and engaging leadership of the task force. Her approach to all the work we did was extremely well balanced, considering the needs of both property owners and the community–all aimed at making Reston a better community. Her cancer also showed that she was an extremely determined fighter, suffering through amputations and treatments that would destroy lesser individuals– and still she was optimistic. Reston and DPZ have suffered a tremendous loss; so too has her family and her many friends in Reston and beyond. She was a consummate professional and a warm and wonderful human being.

  • Cynthia Dwyer

    I never met Heidi, but I’m a friend of her brother, Paul Tolo. I know how much they meant to each other so I wanted to pass on my condolences to the Tolo and Merkel families. My prayers are with you.

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