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Emotional Testimony Dominates Hearing on Respite Center

McLean Bible Church Wants 70-Bed Facility for Disabled Children

A July 24 public hearing on McLean Bible Church’s proposal to build a 24-hour respite center for 70 disabled children and their families attracted 35 speakers and continued until 1 a.m.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission will decide tonight, July 30, whether to allow the facility to be built on the church’s 5.4-acre site at Route 7 and Lewinsville Road.

It is presently zoned R2 for cluster development.

The measure is scheduled for a hearing before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Monday, Aug. 4.

Much of the testimony at the July 24 hearing did not address the issue before the planning commissioners: whether the proposed new facility suits the character of the surrounding residential neighborhoods.

Ever since 1999, when it purchased a 10.8-acre site from the National Wildlife Foundation, McLean Bible Church has sent surrounding neighbors on emotional tangents as it implemented changes at the site.

The church’s two-year-old application for an ancillary respite center seems to have renewed some of the same emotions.

At the public hearing last week, neighbors from Wolf Trap Woods, Wolf Den and other neighborhoods vented resentment at the size of the parking garage the church is building, the intensity of lighting already at the site, problems with storm-water runoff, and an increase in traffic on Route 7 before and after church services.

BUT THE PARENTS and families of disabled children say a respite facility for their families is desperately needed.

McLean Bible’s “special needs center” would occupy 47,000 square feet and stand two stories tall. Architecturally, it is styled like a Vermont inn with gables and porches. It is crowded on the east side of the site, nearest the church, to maximize its buffer with residences.

Several speakers emphasized again and again that McLean Bible Church is the only nearby institution that shows compassion for parents who must care for their special-needs children on a 24/7/365 schedule.

The respite center is intended to give the parents and siblings of special-needs children a reprieve from the relentlessness of continuous care.

McLean Bible Church pastor Lon Solomon said it is modeled after the Shalva Center in Jerusalem, the only one of its kind in the world. He said McLean Bible’s special needs center could become a national model for best practices. Cuts in Medicaid benefits are “galvanizing faith-based and non-governmental private sector groups,” he said, which are becoming “the only hope” for respite care.

“The need for the center is exacerbated by trends in governmental funding,” he said. “Our mission is to identify unreached people groups that no church has reached.”

Solomon’s 11-year old daughter, Jill, is profoundly mentally retarded and lives at home. Seven years ago, he said, McLean Bible Church chose special needs children as its mission.

“My son Daniel has cerebral palsy,” said Dranesville District Resident Steven King, a Ph.D. in nuclear physics.

“The problem he has is sleep disruption. He is wakened and screams five to eight times a night. That’s practically once an hour. Off-site respite care is vitally needed for us,” King said.

McLean Bible Church member Daniel Mock of Falls Church said the center is needed for families, for spouses, and “the divorces that would be stopped.

“My kids are normal, and I would jump at the opportunity to leave them at this facility so I could go off and have a break,” Mock said.

DRANESVILLE PLANNING Commissioner Joan DuBois said she will move for a decision July 30, on whether the facility represents a compatible use next to a residential neighborhood on the south side of Route 7 west of the Dulles Toll Road. The Commission won’t meet again until September.

At last week’s hearing, “I have to honestly say that I think there was a lot of testimony that was more emotional, and not necessarily related to the land-use aspects of this specific application,” said DuBois, whose district includes the church.

“There were obviously those who addressed the need for the facility. There were the citizens in the neighborhood who did not necessarily say they opposed it but wanted it deferred for a year,” she said.

But zoning is not an issue, DuBois said. The facility would be classified for institutional rather than commercial use, and such uses, as for schools and hospitals, are allowed in residential areas.

Mount Vernon planning commissioner John Byers said the commissioners “will stipulate there is need” for such a facility. “The Commission doesn’t need to be persuaded,” he said, “but we are talking about the requirements for land use.”

Fairfax County’s Comprehensive Plan treats the Dulles Access Road as the dividing line between intense commercial and retail density on Route 7 in Tysons Corner, and residential development that extends west of the Toll Road to the Loudoun County line.

“It’s a medical care facility,” DuBois said of the respite center. “They are allowed in residential neighborhoods.”

What she and the other commissioners must decide is whether the facility, which would be accessed from Route 7, will negatively impact nearby residents.

“The important thing to distinguish is that the church is [already] there,” DuBois said. “I have to focus on the issues related to this particular application. Does it increase traffic? Is it compatible? Are there environmental issues that need to be addressed?

“Are there any other land-use issues that need to be looked at?”

At the same time, DuBois said, “Even though some concerns of the citizens are not part of the application, I need to make sure they are addressed as well, because they are important to the neighborhood.” That includes visual issues such as lighting and the visual impact of the garage, she said.

“THERE IS JUST BAGGAGE with this application,” DuBois said. “There is emotion.

“It is a large church. It has a very active outreach ministry, and there are a number of people in the vicinity who are very unhappy that it is there. But I can’t make it go away.”

She said the county has no record of violations or complaints on file regarding the church.

“Some of the neighborhoods brought up the commercial feel [of the church] — how large it is, and how many people it generates.” said DuBois.

“There was a lot about traffic, and things the church didn’t do. [But] all of the issues that are brought up by the residents are being or have been addressed.”

Nancy Hopkins led the McLean Citizens Association’s (MCA) study of the proposal.

“It’s a very difficult case,” Hopkins said. “Everyone agrees there is a need for this kind of services in the area.

“The neighbors were trying to make a case for waiting until full build-out because there have been so many changes,” she said.

But “the development conditions and proffers were very good. I think the Planning Commission will approve it.”

“There is no facility like this in the metropolitan area,” said Elizabeth Baker, a land-use attorney who represents McLean Bible.

She emphasized that the facility will not intensify traffic because the children who use it will be picked up at school by church vans and returned there the next morning.

About 10 percent might arrive in family cars, the church estimates. About 100 cars per day would be added to a peak traffic flow of 5,600 cars per day on Route 7, she said.

The church would add an eastbound right-turn lane that would create a third lane through the church’s intersection with Lewinsville Road, then taper back to two lanes.

ADRIENNE WHYTE, chairman of the MCA’s Planning and Zoning Committee, said the commissioners must decide whether the respite facility is “an appropriate use in a residential district, and whether it is compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods.

“The zoning ordinance requires them to consider if there will be negative impacts,” Whyte said.

Fairfax County needs to more broadly evaluate such proposals, she said. “Our problem in Fairfax is we treat all these cases like onesies. We never look at the cumulative impacts of development.”

Since the National Wildlife Federation sold the site and moved to Reston, the site has been dramatically altered, with nature trails, trees and wildlife observation points replaced by a 2,500-space, two-level parking structure that is lighted at night.

Neighbors of the church “just feel besieged,” Whyte said. “Your friendly neighborhood church is very different in its impacts on the neighborhood than a mega-church with more than 10,000 members,” she said.

“We, and the county, have to come to grips with what are acceptable uses in residential neighborhoods.”

AT THE OUTSET of the hearing, DuBois said she would defer decision for six days to allow the commissioners to check on particular details or new issues that might be raised.

But DuBois said every concern that Hopkins raised for the MCA “is being addressed.”

One of Hopkins’ concerns, the placement of orange cones that stay too long in place, drew a wry question from Hunter Mill District commissioner Frank De La Fe.

“If they were purple, would you mind?” he asked.

De La Fe also commented on print advertisements that were run in a local newspaper saying that, while cleverly written, they had “backfired.”

One half-page ad that was signed by “The Good Neighbors of McLean and Vienna” said the people of McLean Bible Church “have hardly kept their word on a single issue.

“Their building projects continue relentlessly, noise and light flood into our homes every night, nature trails and bird sanctuaries are in disrepair, and the traffic to and from their services has turned Route 7 into the road to perdition,” said the July 23 advertisement.

“McLean Bible Church, it’s time to practice what you preach,” says the ad copy.

“I thought [the ad] was clever, but I thought it was somewhat offensive,” said DuBois. “There was misinformation in it.

“They kept talking about zoning, as opposed to having a use like that in that location.”