It's been a tough and mostly uphill battle. But after eight difficult months of talking with neighbors, a land-use group and a zoning board — and changing its proposal seven different times to try to please everyone — the Sant Nirankari Mission was victorious.
The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on Tuesday approved its application to build a place of worship on Pleasant Valley Road in Chantilly.
"WE ALWAYS dreamed of a facility of our own — it's been planned for many years," said longtime mission member Ram Nagrani. "And hopefully, someday our dream will come true. But this is not a win or lose situation. It's been a long road, and we understand the neighbors' concerns. We hope that, when we do build there, we will be a positive asset to the neighborhood."
The mission has been a source of contention in Chantilly's Pleasant Valley community since April, with residents adamantly opposed to the construction of a large, religious facility right in the middle of their neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Sant Nirankari Mission, a derivative of the Sikh religion, has been in this area for two decades. Its 70-75 members include Centreville and Herndon residents who currently meet in Chesterbrook Methodist Church.
So they decided to build a place of worship on a nearly 4.1-acre, wooded site at 4501 Pleasant Valley Road. They planned a two-level facility, with a prayer hall, offices, activity rooms and a library. But the land is zoned RC (residential conservation), so the mission needed a special permit from the county to build there.
Sant Nirankari first proposed a 15,600-square-foot structure seating 550 people. But when residents complained that it was too big, it changed its drawing — over and over again — finally paring the building to 12,152 square feet with 300 seats and 107 parking spaces. It also decreased the average building height from 45 to 39 feet to 36 feet.
The West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee considered the matter five times. It initially OK'd the project, then denied it. But the applicant continued amending its plans, to assuage the residents as best it could.
Then on Oct. 19 — after hearing compelling arguments from both sides — the WFCCA gave the mission a thumbs up. Some details still had to be hammered out, but the WFCCA acknowledged the mission's painstaking efforts over several months to make its proposal more amenable to the residents.
NEIGHBORS EXPECTED another home to be built on that lot, not a church. They said the building was way too large in relation to their houses — and resident Cynthia Shang even made an impressive scale model in illustration. The neighbors contended that such a big church right in the midst of their quiet community of small homes would be too disruptive and incompatible with its surroundings.
They also had serious traffic concerns — especially the need for a left-turn lane from Route 50 south onto Pleasant Valley Road. They said motorists coming around the turn on Pleasant Valley wouldn't be able to pass cars waiting to turn left into the church and drivers lacked adequate sight distance. But VDOT isn't requiring the mission to build a left-turn lane.
The issue went next to the BZA, which made the final decision. But because it was such a difficult case, the BZA deferred decision twice. At-large member Jim Pammel asked VDOT to examine the alignment of the Pleasant Valley Road curve just north of the site. And he asked the mission to consider further lowering the building's height.
By Tuesday morning, the height had been reduced three feet and the BZA approved the application. Said BZA member Jim Hart: "The [county's] Comprehensive Plan requires that nonresidential uses in the RC district meet certain criteria and be rigorously reviewed — and we've given this one a careful look."
While it's always hoped a consensus may be reached, it's not always possible, he said. But, added Hart, "The debate often leads to an improved application."
The 1982 downzoning yielded more stringent development standards for this area. However, the county Zoning Ordinance allows some two dozen uses in this RC district along arterial roads (such as Braddock and Pleasant Valley roads).
"A church is an approvable use in the RC district if certain standards are met and, since April, [county] staff has been recommending approval [of this matter]," said Hart. "The applicant has met with the community several times, and there's a letter of support from the WFCCA — which has [many years] of experience reviewing such applications in the RC."
He said all this scrutiny and input resulted in several improvements to the proposal, including: Orienting the building so its short end was nearest the homes, moving the facility farther away from the houses, reducing the building' height and adding an extra amount of screening to the east side of the mission.
Overall, he said, "I'm satisfied that the size and scale of the building is compatible with places of worship in the RC district." Regarding the transportation issues, he said, "Staff concluded this was approvable. And four churches in the nearby vicinity have been approved. I've never been happy about the curve there, but [this] application is not the cause of the curve problem."
He noted that the county's approved other churches — such as Chantilly Bible Church, across the street — without requiring that they modify the curve. Said Hart: "You can't make the next applicant pay for the problems of the whole development — especially when it didn't cause them."
HE SAID that site will have its greatest traffic volumes at off-peak times. And, he added, "Even if everyone's concerns haven't been 100 percent addressed, the community's been involved and the final product is significantly better than what was originally submitted."
Hart said the parcel probably should have been incorporated into the community years ago by the developer. But since it wasn't, "It's reasonable to expect that, being on an arterial, it's going to be developed into an industrial use." He recommended approval, and the BZA agreed unanimously.
Hart also recommended that the Supervisors consider having safety improvements made to the curve. "VDOT acknowledged there's a problem there," said Pammel. "It's critical that there be some immediate action to this curve so that it's flattened out and improved."
Lori Greenlief, the mission's land-use consultant, was delighted with the outcome. "I think our client was responsive, and I honestly believe the mission will continue to work with the neighbors as their church is built," she said. "And I really appreciate the professional way that Cynthia Shang organized and represented Pleasant Valley."
Mission member Nagrani said a site plan and building permits are the next steps. "We plan to be a good neighbor," he said. "And we hope they'll be good neighbors to us, as well."