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A Divided WFCCA OKs Mission Plan

Before a packed house, with compelling arguments on both sides of the issue, the WFCCA Tuesday night approved the request of the Sant Nirankari Mission to build a place of worship in Chantilly.

Nearly two dozen members of the Pleasant Valley community — where the church would go — came to oppose the plan. They said the building was too big and the site needed a left-turn lane from Route 50 south onto Pleasant Valley Road.

But after 1 1/2 hours of debate and discussion, the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee blessed the proposal by a vote of 6-2, with one abstention. The matter now goes to the county Board of Zoning Appeals, this Tuesday, Oct. 26, for final decision.

"This is a very hard case for us to deal with," said WFCCA Chairman Jim Katcham. "To make things work, there has to be the heart of compromise, and I encourage the dialogue to continue."

The issue was before the WFCCA for the fifth time, having received an initial OK, followed by a denial at September's meeting. But since July, the applicant continued amending its plans to try assuaging the residents.

Sant Nirankari Mission is a derivative of the Sikh religion and its congregation has been in this area for two decades. Its 70-75 members live throughout the county — including Centreville and Herndon.

They currently meet in Chesterbroook Methodist Church, but want their own home — on a nearly 4.1-acre, wooded site at 4501 Pleasant Valley Road. It's zoned RC (residential conservation), so the mission needs a special permit from the county to build there.

It plans a two-level facility, with a prayer hall, offices, activity rooms and a library. It first proposed a 15,600-square-foot structure seating 550 people. Residents complained, so it redrew its design and plat layout. It proposed a building seating 376 and having 119 parking spaces.

Next came a 12,600-square-foot structure with 300 seats and 107 parking spaces, with the average building height reduced from 45 to 39 feet. It then shrunk to 12,152 square feet.

In September, the WFCCA said the mission had to make its building more compatible with the neighborhood, increase the buffering and add a left-turn lane. Tuesday, land-use consultant Jane Kelsey said it's providing an extra 25 feet of buffering, added to what's already existing. And she said the engineer might be able to grade down to make the building appear lower and the trees seem taller.

Burke's Ram Nagrani, a longtime mission member, said the congregation's grown slowly. But, he said, "We've always dreamed of building our own church and having a beautiful place of our own. We looked three or four years to find a suitable spot. We listened to the neighbors' concerns; we want to work with them." But ultimately, he added, "We'd like to see our dream fulfilled."

WFCCA's Carol Hawn said her home backs up to huge Centreville United Methodist Church and it's never bothered her — even though it plans to expand. But resident Dawn Williams said the church was there before Hawn bought her home, and Harry Heisler said he expected homes to be built on the lot eyed by the mission.

Neighbor Cynthia Shang even displayed a scale model she'd built showing how large the mission would be in relation to their homes. Raymond Path said Pleasant Valley Road has "an awful lot of traffic" even when it's not rush hour, and Milton Becker took umbrage with the curve on that road where the mission would go. "There's no way in hell 40 mph is safe going around it," he said. "You're gonna have cars crackin' up, all over the place."

Others 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.

"I personally think a left-turn lane would be smart there," said WFCCA's Russ Wanek. "But VDOT is the law and we have to abide by what it says." Still, countered Warren Shang, "This is a hazardous situation. It's a matter of life and death there; decide with your conscience."

WFCCA's Ted Troscianecki said it's a balance between "the right thing to do, the financial burden on the applicant [if it had to build the lane] and VDOT rules." And both he and Wanek said they couldn't support the proposal without that lane. WFCCA's Terry Spence praised the community's involvement, but said churces and homes are compatible uses.

"They've made six changes for you," said WFCCA's Judy Heisinger to the residents. "They've reduced the building size enormously ... and I think they can be a good neighbor."