Montessori Debate Rages

Montessori Debate Rages

Quest to bring school to south Reston community has neighbors up in arms.

To the relief of most of the standing-room only crowd, plans to move a Montessori School into a south Reston neighborhood were stalled by the Design Review Board (DRB) last Tuesday night.

Most of the overflow crowd of more than 75 people who packed the Aug. 19 DRB meeting came to voice their displeasure with the prospect of redeveloping the United Christian Parish Church (UCP) on the corner of Ridge Heights Road and South Lakes Drive into a new home for the Sunset Hills Montessori Children’s School.

A frustrated seller, however, warned the neighbors that if they are successful in blocking the sale of his church, the property might be sold to a less desirable buyer.

After a nearly three-hour discussion, a divided DRB unanimously agreed to defer action on the proposal. Board members Robin Smyers and Neal Roseberry indicated that they were inclined to support the proposal, while the other members seemed skeptical of the current redevelopment project. “I don’t think the final solution is on the table,” said chairman Richard Newlon. “The intensity of use is a concern to me.”

Smyers and Roseberry were prepared to vote in support of the project, but they agreed to defer the vote. “This is an appropriate use of the site. I have heard their concerns about the children’s noise, but the fact is this is already a noisy setting,” Roseberry said. “I am sorry that the neighbors don’t want it in their backyard.”

IN AN ATTEMPT to bridge the differences between the prospective owners and neighbors, Mark Looney the attorney for Eileen Minarik, the school’s owner, said he and his client have met with the neighboring communities, including representatives from the Brenton Cove cluster, which sits directly behind the property. Looney said he understood the neighbors concerns about increased noise, lights from cars, and a “more intensive use of the site,” and he said he believed those concerns had been adequately addressed. Looney said that a relocation of the new addition was discussed but ultimately, he said, there were no better alternatives for site. Looney said his client had made some changes to the proposed playground to be located in what is currently the end of the parking lot. In previous meetings, neighbors had said that the location was too close to the neighboring townhouses, but Looney insisted, that after studying alternative sites on the property, the parking lot roundabout was the best location. The applicant did move some of the equipment a little further west away from the neighboring townhomes.

To put the playground closer to the school would require losing all, or nearly all, of the estimated 60 trees that grace the property, now, Looney said. Acknowledging that trees will be lost to the addition, Looney said he anticipates only felling 15 to 20, a figure that was met with skepticism from the board.

Looney also rejected another potential playground site because it would have been too close to South Lakes Drive, he said. “We care about the safety of these kids,” he said.

To mitigate the noise from the proposed playground, the developers are proposing an eight-foot solid board fence instead of a chain link fence that appeared in previous applications. To mitigate light from cars, Looney said his client was prepared to plant a hedge that would help block the light.

The DRB was less than enthusiastic about the applicant’s latest proposal. “Essentially there are no changes except to move a little equipment and put up a eight-foot fence that nobody, including the neighbors, seems to like,” said Newlon, the DRB chairman. “I’m baffled as to why we have the same plan in front of us. Some questions have gone unanswered and that, frankly, bothers me.”

“I don’t think there has been any serious attempt to address concerns of the community at-large, if anything I am less convinced than before,” said Board member Graham Farbrother, echoing the frustration of several board members. Later in the evening, however, Farbrother did indicate that he would likely support the proposal if the plank wood fence were removed.

SPEAKING ON BEHALF of many of the neighbors in attendance on Tuesday night, Gary Voight urged the DRB to delay any decisions on the redevelopment project. “We are totally depending on you to protect our interests,” he said.

Voight said neighbors, like him, had some “real concerns” about the appropriateness of the project. “This property just isn’t figured properly for this size institution,” he said. “Maybe they should look into re-configuring the existing original building. We don’t object to the facility per se, we just object to the size and scope. It needs more study.”

Another neighbor, James Cumnock, the Dockside condominiums cluster representative, said that increased traffic and congestion along Ridge Heights Road would “negatively impact” more than 200 residents. Cumnock said he objected to putting a large commercial business at the entry point of their “unmistakably residential” neighborhood.

Mark Watts, the Nantucket condominium association president, said the proposed redevelopment does not meet the standards set out in the DRB guidelines. According to RA-approved guidelines, any significant change should not “detrimentally affect surrounding properties,” a standard that Watts says has not been met. “This redevelopment plan is not in harmony with the Reston Master Plan,” he said. “This project will have a detrimental impact on our community. The design guidelines state that you must be sensitive to the established character of the neighborhood. An 11,000-square-foot addition will change our community from residential to commercial.”

Robert Simon, the founder of Reston, attended last week’s meeting and was one of the few to speak up in support of the proposal. “The arrival of a school in a neighborhood is a wonderful thing,” Simon said. “I actually suspect that your property values will go up, I wouldn’t sell just yet.”

Most audience members were not so optimistic. “The shrill sounds of 220 kids will be real pungent sounds to these neighbors,” said Will Washington.

RICK ELLIOT HAD HEARD enough. For about an hour, Elliot, the UCP representative, sat quietly listening to neighbor after neighbor protest the proposed redevelopment of UCP’s Ridge Heights facility into a school. “I think you should not lose sight that owners, not just homeowners, have certain rights, too. We firmly believe that we have the right to do everything the Montessori School wants to do,” he said. “Neighborhoods are not free from redevelopment.”

Elliot expressed frustration at his church’s inability to sell one of its four Reston properties after 18 months on the market and he said he was “disturbed” at the comments and the tone he heard during last week’s forum. Elliot said if the Montessori application is rejected, neighbors might find themselves living next to something “much less to their liking.” “This is not a threat, veiled or otherwise,” he said, adding that neighbors might see AA meetings at the site if the current plan is rejected.

Neighbor Cathy Fu was angered at Elliot’s defiant tone. “Yes, it could be worse,” she said. “But it could be better.”

Voight went on to say that the “neighborhood was spoiled,” and that his church was there before the townhouses that sit behind it. “If a school does not go there, economic realities don’t support another church there.”

When asked if she would consider downsizing her proposed 225-person school, Eileen Minarik flatly refused. “We couldn’t afford to,” she said. “The property is too large for a small church and too small for a large church. That’s why it has been for sale for so long.”

Board member Joan Beach said she supported a school at the site, but, like many of the neighbors, she worried that the size was not appropriate. She said that it would be a great location for a school of 100 students or less.

“No one could afford to run a 100-person school,” Looney added.

“Perhaps you should all pool your resources and buy the property and turn it into a park,” Elliot said.

Almost immediately, Voight expressed interest in Elliot’s off-the-cuff remark. “We are open to that,” he said.

Elliot quickly retreated saying that his comment was “for illustrative purposes only.”