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Religious Schools Take Hold in Residential Neighborhoods

For the past four years, the trustees of the Unity of Fairfax Church of the Daily Word had been working on the plans to enlarge the facility, located on Hunter Mill Road in Oakton, and more importantly how to pay for the construction.

The church, which dates back to 1975, was looking to build new administrative offices, classrooms for adult education and to add a little space.

Last spring, the members of Unity were approached by the Quakers, who were looking for space for the Northern Virginia Friends School.

"It was a wonderful gift from heaven," said Jean Lentz, Unity's project manager. "What we were looking for was income to pay for the project."

The two groups were able to come to an agreement which allows the Quakers to run a five-days-a-week private elementary school during the day and the Unity members to have a facility that suits their needs.

THE PROJECT, while different in that one congregation is renting space to another, is reflective of what is going on around Fairfax County. Religious organizations are building schools in residential neighborhoods.

In fact, in February, when Unity received unanimous approval from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to amend its permit to allow for the school, it was one of two such requests on the agenda that night. The other, Gesher Jewish Day School of Northern Virginia is planning to build a facility on Shirley Gate Road in Fairfax.

"We have more than 3,000 people on a waiting list that we can identity and that does not even come close to the number of people who want to send their children to parochial school," said Tim McNiff, schools superintendent for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, which serves an area that extends north to the Potomac River and as far south as West Virginia. "We've built six elementary schools in the past 10 years. We're in the process of planning two high schools and there are three elementary schools we're trying to get built."

In all, the diocese has 42 schools with the majority being located in the Beltway area, McNiff said.

Just last year, the diocese received approval from the county to build a school at St. Mark's in Vienna and to expand an existing school at St. Joseph's in Herndon.

WHILE RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS might see a need for private schools, one of the biggest hurdles is convincing the neighbors who worry about an increase in traffic as well as noise and light pollution.

"There was community opposition from the immediate neighbors," Lentz said. "But Hunter Mill Road will be widened to four lanes within the next few months anyway. There is a housing development [near the intersection of Route 123 and Hunter Mill Road] that is adding two lanes, we're adding a turn lane."

For the Burke Community Church in Burke, the concern was not the amount of traffic, but tree preservation and setbacks.

"We stood in a couple of folks' yards. One guy's garden was 5 feet from our property line," said Phil Crowell, Burke Community's director of development. "We arranged for a 75 foot buffer and made some other accommodations for another homeowners with grading and a berm."

Burke Community is in the process of expanding its facility.

"Churches are considered commercial entities and are tantamount to putting in a Wal-Mart or an office building," Crowell said. "The same rules apply and the same kind of reactions are invoked."

McNiff said the community reaction is typical of any new construction planned for an older existing neighborhood and has nothing to do with religious issues. In the case of the St. Mark's proposal, for example, neighbors raised concerns over the increased traffic, lighted fields, noise concerns, the proximity to neighbors of the new building and the general size of the planned facility.

"It didn't surprise us," McNiff said. "Generally, parochial schools enhance a community and increase home value."