Church Site Debate Continues

Church Site Debate Continues

Open space and McMansions proposed.

At times last Wednesday night it was hard to tell what was driving the opposition to another residential development proposal — potential loss of open space or fear of having eight "McMansions" looming over the neighborhood. Either way the nays had the volume — in decibels and numbers.

More than 100 citizens congregated at Bishop Ireton High School auditorium to hear Eileen Fogarty, director, Department of Planning and Zoning, and Richard Baier, director, Transportation and Environmental Service Administration, present an analysis of the impact of development at the site of the former Second Presbyterian Church which closed in 2002.

Developer of the six-plus acre site at the intersection of Janney's and Quaker lanes, Elm Street Development, Inc., of McLean, has agreed to donate two lots to the city for open space. The remainder would be used for eight large homes expected to sell in the $2 million price range.

This was unacceptable to a majority of those attending the community meeting. Most wanted the entire site to be preserved as open space. Others objected to the planned size of the new homes "that would dwarf the existing neighborhood."

When National Capital Presbytery, Inc., decided to sell the property in 2002, due to a congregation that had diminished to approximately 20, it offered to sell the site to the city. Council, at that time, decided against the purchase based on price and the fact that it was felt there were other areas of the city more in need of open space preservation.

It had been estimated that the land would sell for approximately $3 million-plus. However, Elm Street Development submitted a bid in excess of $5 million, well above all other bidders. In order for the city to buy the property, the cost has been estimated at $5.5 million.

CHURCH OFFICIALS have indicated they are seeking the highest possible price so the money can be used to help existing Presbyterian churches, establish new churches and add endowment to their seminary scholarship fund. The Elm Street bid satisfied those goals.

In making a presentation, Fogarty noted, "The site is identified in the City Open Space Plan. It is presently zoned R-20 which is the lowest density possible."

She also pointed out, "The only way to deny a legitimate site plan is to have such denial stand up in court. You have to have a fairly strong case on such items as safety and other factors."

As for the safety element, when discussing traffic, Baier noted, "We looked at the traffic impact of the developer's proposal. Single family sites generate a relatively small amount of traffic. From a traffic perspective, there is not a lot to be concerned about."

To buttress that statement, Baier displayed a graphic indicating a 63 and 73 percent decrease respectively, in traffic going to and from the site during morning and afternoon peak hours with the transformation from a church to single family residential use. He estimated no more than 16 vehicle entrances and exits as compared to the previous high of 45.

THERE WAS ALSO a question of subsurface springs and tributary streams that allegedly impact the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area. Baier dismissed the ground water objections by pointing out these could be dealt by established procedures. They were also discounted by a long time area resident who said, "I have lived here for 30 years and have never experienced a problem with ground water run off."

Of the 10 planned subdivided lots, the two to be voluntarily donated to the city will result in approximately 48,612 square feet of open space for the benefit of community, according to the Planning Department. In addition, 21 of the 32 trees will remain after completion of the development, thereby, "preserving most of the canopy on site," they pointed out. Under the developer's plan, approximately 41 percent of the site will remain as open space.

Those advocating for more open space suggested the city should buy at least one more lot from the developer, if the whole site could not be left undeveloped. Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper noted, "We have been told regularly we didn't have the money to buy this property. I asked if we could at least buy one lot.

"I'm not adverse to buying the whole property. But if we were able to come up with the money it is unlikely we could just leave it in open space. We would have to use it for some purpose."

Fogarty had noted to Pepper, in a memorandum dated February 24, "We believe the applicant [Elm Street Development] purchased the ... site for $5.5 million...This price divided by the number of lots equates to ... approximately $555,000 per lot. However, this amount does not take into account site development, infrastructure and the loss of profit to the developer. Once all these factors are taken into account, the purchase price ... will likely be significantly more than $550,000."

CITY COUNCIL member Andrew H. Macdonald insisted, "This isn't just an issue about big houses or development. The city has embarked on a very progressive plan to preserve open space. The issue to me is would the developer sell it to us now and what would we have to pay for it. It's just a matter of will power."

Fogarty had stated in her memo to Pepper, "Assuming the developer is willing to sell one of the lots, the cost to the city ... is not easily determined." She told the audience, "There's been a real shift in City Council to preserve open space."

The previous City Council voted last spring to set aside one cent of real estate property tax for open space preservation. But, as Fogarty told the crowd at the meeting, "We presently only have $2 million in the Open Space Fund."

Philip Brooks, a Seminary Hill resident, raised a question of historical preservation in reference to buildings on the property. "One particular building could be just short of 100 years old," he said.

The site consists of a church building, two surface parking lots, and a single-family house, in disrepair, that is estimated to be approximately 90 years old, according to the Planning Department.

In answer to Pepper's conjecture that the property would have to be used for something, Brooks said, "I would suggest the site be turned into a horticultural park much like Green Springs Park in Fairfax County." There was another suggestion to convert it to playing fields.

Countering the latter suggestion, another attendee pointed out, "If this happens [playing fields] people who are complaining about traffic now will get quite a bit more traffic than any development would bring." There was no broad consensus among the crowd for playing fields.

Jean Moore, a long-time Janney's Lane resident, addressed the size of the proposed homes rather than open space. "We are prepared to deal with the developer more pragmatically. If we can't preserve this as open space can we control the size of the homes to be built there," she asked. There was no answer.

Some members of Seminary Hill Association have indicated they are not opposed to large homes. They see it as an opportunity to convert the neighborhood into a luxury area. Others view them as an overpowering influence, not in keeping with traditional properties in the vicinity.

The Association has not taken a formal stand on the proposal. They indicated, at the Bishop Ireton meeting, that will happen at their March 13 meeting.

A formal application by the developer to the Planning Commission is not expected until April, according to planning staff. It will probably be on the docket for May, they indicated. The February 25 community meeting was one of several held by the department to get citizen input.