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General Plan Tightens School's Land Search

Revisions limit development of playing fields in floodplains.

Land use requirements in the Revised General Plan have put a cinch on the School Board’s search for land.

“We have to buy more land in order to comply … to position schools and playing fields,” said School Board member Joseph Vogric (Dulles).

The supervisors passed a resolution in September 2001 requiring that public facilities, including new school and county buildings, be developed in conformance with the Revised General Plan adopted three months earlier. The plan gained the force of law in January 2003 when the board adopted amendments to the zoning ordinance and the related zoning map.

In the meantime, the School Board continued to work with its own requirements for school sites, sized at 20 acres for elementary schools, 35 acres for middle schools and 60 acres for high schools, as adopted by a previous school board in 1991 and incorporated into the General Plan.

“In order to meet the requirements our School Board has established, we may be looking at more land to get the right acreage for fields,” said Samuel Adamo, director of planning and legislative services for Loudoun County Public Schools. “If you can’t use a floodplain, you need to be looking at other land where you can put the fields.”

The Revised General Plan restricts the development of playing fields in major and minor floodplains, along with providing for the protection of certain environmental features.

The floodplains or wetlands, which are located throughout the county, “do not cost much to acquire,” said John Andrews (Broad Run). “Now we’re going to have to buy land out of the floodplain, which is expensive. It’s going to make school sites cost at least one-third more if not more. In some cases, it will be more than double.”

THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS faced additional costs of $1.5 million to $2 million to conform the site plans for Dominion High School to the Revised General Plan, the first school to follow the county’s new regulations. In fall 2001, the site for the school, which is scheduled to open in fall 2003, was redesigned to move two playing fields out of a 100-year floodplain located along Sugarland Run. The redesign resulted in a cut of 4.5 usable acres.

“We had to move everything closer together,” said Thomas Sullivan, director of construction for the Public Schools.

Andrews questioned why the schools are now prevented from putting playing fields in floodplains “in the same field farmers farmed or cows grazed on.” “I think it’s a good common-sense balance of the environment and the needs of the people to enjoy that environment,” he said.

In answer, Supervisor Charles Harris (D-Broad Run) said the Board of Supervisors seeks to protect the county’s surface water through several methods, including using riparian buffers to help prevent pollutants and runoff from entering streams and rivers. The Revised General Plan keeps development out of the 100-year floodplain for the “riparian buffer and the buffering it provides between rivers and streams and urban development,” he said.

“Once we destroy riparian buffers, we don’t reconstruct them. We don’t bring them back very well, and when we do, it’s very expensive,” Harris said. “It’s easier to save them up front and build around them than it is to build over them, destroy them and try to reconstruct them. … They [School Board members] need to look at the whole picture. Is it worth it to jeopardize water in the future for cheaper things now?”

“We have an obligation to the people who come after us to leave them with an environment that is healthy and robust. Unless we do [that], our streams and water resources will be corrupted, lost and never recovered,” said Supervisor James Burton (I-Mercer). “If we don’t impose restrictions, the Loudoun Valley would end up looking like the Los Angeles basin where you have nothing but concrete. … People come out here to enjoy the features of western Loudoun. It makes sense to preserve that as much as we can.”

THE SCHOOL DISTRICT has in place prototype design plans for three building types that can be adopted to the layout of a parcel of land, but now the schools have to consider additional protective measures for a site’s environmental features. As a result, the schools may have to pay for more detailed engineering studies and surveys to identify those features, Sullivan said. The additional requirements could increase construction costs at some sites by as much as 10 percent, he said, adding that actual costs are hard to determine considering that the market and contractor charges vary.

The public schools ended up reducing the site for South Riding High School from 60 acres to 42 acres to preserve the environmental features there, Sullivan said. He could not give an estimate of the amount of additional costs since the project has not gone to bid yet for a school scheduled to open in fall 2005.

Supervisors suggested building schools on smaller sites.

“Sixty-acre high school and 20-acre elementary school sites are becoming too expensive.

"They need to step back and reevaluate all of their requirements for acreage,” Burton said. “This School Board and the one previous have expanded their requirements. They’ve added so many after-school activities and sports, they claim to need larger parcels.”

IN RESPONSE, Vogric said building on smaller sites would “be a sacrifice to the community,” since the county’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services uses school fields for community sports programs. “When we build a field, there are people wanting in line to use the fields.”

The public schools aims to balance school needs with the county’s Revised General Plan, Sullivan said. “We think we can do that,” he said, “So far, we haven’t had to dramatically change the sites completely. We have made adjustments here and there. … Certainly you have some areas you will preserve you might not have had to in the past. That’s the new rules of the game.”

“The rules are now in place,” Adamo said. “We just can’t look for land anymore. We have to look for land that meets the perimeters of the new General Plan. … We have to be a lot more careful when we look at land and consider a lot more factors when we evaluate a land’s suitability for a school.”