Residents of Chantilly's Pleasant Valley community are learning firsthand about the benefits of living in a democracy.
Upset about a place of worship proposed for construction in their neighborhood, they're speaking out against it in all the right places. And so far, they've influenced the actions of two important groups.
"The WFCCA recommended denial [last week] unless three conditions [dealing with size, traffic and screening] were met," said Pleasant Valley's Cynthia Shang. "Everybody began applauding — it was a big victory for us."
AT ISSUE is the Sant Nirankari Mission which now meets in a local Methodist church, but wants a place of its own — 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.
Bordering this parcel are Pleasant Valley and Cub Run roads, Louis Mill Drive and Carl's Court. Planned is a two-level facility with a prayer hall and open area on the upper floor and offices, activity rooms and a library on the lower floor.
And with initial recommendations for approval from a citizens association and Fairfax County staff, it seemed the mission would get its final blessing last April from the county Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).
But when six Pleasant Valley residents expressed strong opposition to the BZA, decision was deferred until Oct. 19. And last Tuesday, Sept. 21, some two dozen made their feelings known to the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee.
The Sant Nirankari Mission is a derivative of the Sikh religion and its congregation has been in this area for more than 20 years. It currently has 80-100 members, and land-use consultants Jane Kelsey and Lori Greenlief are representing the mission in its quest for a home.
The mission first proposed a 15,600-square-foot structure that would seat 350 people and have 119 parking spaces. But because of residents' concerns about its size, it redrew its design and plat layout. It now plans a 12,600-square-foot building with 300 seats and 107 parking spaces.
BUT THE residents aren't appeased. And even though the average building height was reduced from 45 to 39 feet — it would be on a graded area with different land heights — residents say it would be taller.
"The architectural drawings show the building height on the side that faces Louis Mill will actually be 47 feet, 2 1/2 inches," said Shang. "It's incredibly tall."
Mark Schaad said he and his neighbors live in a "modest and beautiful little community — a pleasant valley — and we're OK with that." But they worry that the mission might peek over their treetops. "If it were smaller, it would be much more compatible," said Shang. "It's six times the size of our average homes."
"My house is a mere 24 feet high," said Schaad. "This would tower and be a very imposing structure." Added Shang: "We have a quiet neighborhood and don't even have street lights. The noise and traffic when they have late services and events, weddings, funerals, etc., would be too intrusive."
And there are other problems. Because the project requires more stormwater-management facilities that would take away space from the northern side of the parking lot, that space was added to the southern side of the lot. As a result, the southern side would be moved 30 feet closer to the homes on Louis Mill and be just 65 feet from the residents.
Traffic is another major issue. "A left-hand stacking lane from Route 50 south onto Pleasant Valley Road is not being considered — even though VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] requested twice in writing that they do so," said Shang. "People coming around the turn on Pleasant Valley won't be able to pass cars waiting to turn left to enter the church facility."
She also noted a significant increase in traffic on that road. In June, when half of Pleasant Valley Road was closed so three dangerous curves could be improved, county police did a traffic count there, and discovered a substantial increase in the past two years.
"On June 21, 2004, there were 7,200 vehicles per day — a 41-percent increase from the 2002 traffic count," said Shang. "So that road has almost doubled in the number of vehicles that travel it on a daily basis. In 2002, the average was 5,100 vehicles per day."
Furthermore, she said, the traffic count also revealed that, although Pleasant Valley's speed limit is 35 mph, 85 percent of the vehicles were traveling 48.8 mph. So, said Shang, "VDOT also needs to take this into account when granting an entry permit because people driving faster on Pleasant Valley road would have even less sight distance before coming upon the stopped vehicles."
"I've watched the traffic increase here tremendously, and Fairfax County seems to have no concern about the effects of it," said Schaad. "I'd absolutely hate for someone to get killed because of the traffic."
NEIGHBOR DAWN WILLIAMS said many of the residents "already avoid that side of Pleasant Valley Road to avoid the curve just south of where they want to build." She said that's where rainwater accumulates and, "often, ice forms there."
She, too, believes the worship facility "wouldn't be harmonious" with the neighborhood. "They didn't seem to make much of a change," said Williams, who's lived there since 1992. "It's still a very large building."
Schaad, however, believes the mission is doing what it believes it must to turn its dream into reality. "I don't think the mission has any malicious intent, and I have nothing against them," he explained. "Two other churches border our neighborhood and a third is being built. But that mission would be smack in the middle of our neighborhood."
On Sept. 21, the WFCCA recommended denial unless a left-turn lane is added, screening is increased between the building and the houses and the mission considers again reducing the structure's size to make it less visible from residents' homes.
WFCCA Chairman Jim Katcham said "community concerns" prompted that action. "The community has a different perspective than we have," he said. "Their views [on this issue] were critical [to us]."
Pleased with the denial, Schaad said, "It gave me a feeling of not being disenfranchised. It seemed to be a victory for the small guy. We're planning on living here the rest of our lives, so we're concerned about our quality of life. We should have a say about what's going on in our own backyard. We want to protect the character of our neighborhood."