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Planning Commission Defers Church Vote

Nancy Hopkins, Dranesville’s new planning commissioner, is facing her first serious challenge over a proposal to build an assited living facility on Westmoreland Road that has split the local Presbyterian Church and drawn opposition from neighboring communities.

The proposal would place a 97-unit facility serving 109 seniors on land owned by the National Capital Presbytery, which represents Washington area Presbyterians. Half of the units would be reserved for low income seniors under the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program. Other units would be reserved for seniors with moderate incomes.

Until 2001, the Chesterbrook Presbyterian Church sat on the site. After the church’s dissolution three years ago, the National Capital Presbytery leased the church building to a Taiwanese Congregation that set up the Chesterbrook Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. The assisted living facility would go behind the Taiwanese church. An access road running behind the Taiwanese church would connect the facility to Westmoreland Street.

MEMBERS OF the Taiwanese congregation objected to the proposal at last Thursday’s public hearing, driving a wedge between their church and the regional body. To the congregation, the access road would make it impossible for the church to expand its sanctuary to reflect its growing membership.

“It is clear that there is not enough room to accommodate both [Chesterbrook Taiwanese Presbyterian Church’s] future sanctuary site and an entrance driveway to [the Chesterbrook affordable living facility],” said Hai Tang, a church member.

“We see growth of the congregation as a priority,” said Cheng Hung, a member of the Taiwanese church.

The National Capital Presbytery has also agreed to let parents who drop their children off at neighboring Longfellow Middle School use the access road on church property. Tang said letting parents use the road would create “hazardous traffic very close to the church.”

He said the Taiwanese church has been trying to resolve the issue internally with the regional presbyter, which owns all church property in the area. “They don’t seem to listen to us.”

But Emily Berman D’Andrea, associate pastor at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, said the idea for an assisted living facility dates back to 2001, when the original church on the site was dissolved. At the time, she said, an agreement was reached that let the Taiwanese congregation use the building and reserved the land behind it for the assisted living facility.

“The Presbytery has bent over backwards to try to accommodate the Taiwanese,” she said. For instance, the regional organization sent a team of architects to study how the Taiwanese church could expand without building over the proposed access road.

“I think it’s sort of a cultural squabble that will be worked out,” she said.

The church disagreement is not “germane” to the Planning Commission, she added, because legally the National Capital Presbytery owns all the land.

AT THE SAME TIME, neighborhoods surrounding the planned building object that the facility would be too big.

“This would be the third largest facility in the county,” said Mark Zetts, president of the Kirby Court Homeowners’ Association. He added that the neighbors would welcome a smaller building “but the current facility is just too big.”

Adrienne Whyte, former chairman of the planning and zoning committee of the McLean Citizens’ Association, said most assisted living facilities in the county have between 40 and 50 beds.

For instance, the 60-bed Lewinsville Senior Center located a couple miles away from the Chesterbrook site is considerably smaller than the proposed 97-bed facility.

Zetts said the community was also concerned about noise. The facility will have emergency generators which will need to be switched on once a week for 15 minutes, he said.

Also, he said, every unit is going to get its own air conditioner. “We’ve asked them to install very quiet air conditioners and they haven’t agreed to do it.”

Carson Fifer, an attorney with McGuire Woods representing the application, said facility’s planners have met extensively with the surrounding communities. The facility was originally planned to have 135 units but that number was brought down to 97 after meeting with neighbors.

“An extremely large part of the sire is open space and is not paved open space,” he added.

Several speakers spoke in favor of the application at the public hearing, saying affordable assisted living facilities will become increasingly necessary as the county’s demographic change.

“There’s only one facility in this county that’s considered affordable and that’s Lincolnia and their waiting list is closed,” said Robert Gehring, a member of the Fairfax Area Commission on aging.