<bt>A place of worship is generally considered as something peaceful and, hopefully, that's what the Sant Nirankari Mission in Pleasant Valley will be. But the road to its approval there has been marked with intense fighting by nearby residents who oppose its construction by their homes.
In December — after more than a year of heated verbal battles, public hearings and compromises — the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) gave the mission its official blessing to build in the Chantilly community. A month later, five angry neighbors filed a petition in Circuit Court to have the BZA's decision overturned.
Both sides had their day in court, Aug. 12; and when the dust cleared, Judge Kathleen MacKay ruled in favor of the BZA, upholding the legality of its action.
"The BZA is affirmed," she told the residents. "I'm sorry you don't agree with it, but that's my decision."
Sant Nirankari Mission is a derivative of the Sikh religion and has been in the local area for two decades. Centreville and Herndon residents are among its 70-75 members who currently meet in Chesterbroook Methodist Church.
But when the mission decided to build a place of worship on a nearly 4.1-acre, wooded site at 4501 Pleasant Valley Road in Chantilly, it touched off a firestorm of opposition from the residents there.
Sant Nirankari planned a two-level facility, with a prayer hall, offices, activity rooms and a library. But since the land is zoned RC (residential conservation), the mission needed a special permit from the county to build there.
It initially proposed construction of a 15,600-square-foot structure seating 550 people. But when residents complained it was too big, it changed its drawing — several times — finally trimming 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.
But the Pleasant Valley denizens argued that such a large 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 and said a left-turn lane would be needed from Route 50 south onto Pleasant Valley Road.
So shortly after the BZA rendered its decision, five residents — Harry Heisler, Eric Scheppen, Jon D'Andrea, Gladys Salas and Guillermo Montero — took legal action.
In their Jan. 13 petition, the complainants wrote, "Despite the widespread and well-founded opposition to the Nirankari application throughout the Pleasant Valley community, on Dec. 7, 2004, the [BZA] granted ... the erection of the proposed building."
Stating that their properties would be "immediately affected" by this structure, the document called the BZA's approval "illegal" and contended that the BZA was "without jurisdiction to act in the matter." However, special-permit cases do come under BZA domain.
The petition also argued that the BZA's ruling didn't meet the general-standards requirements for special permits which state that "the proposed use shall be ... harmonious with neighboring properties." It stated that Pleasant Valley homes average 21 feet in height and have 1,400 square feet of living space, but the mission would be "gargantuan, relative to the rest of the neighborhood."
In his response on behalf of the mission, filed Aug. 4 in Circuit Court, attorney David Stoner wrote that, after the many revisions to the plan, the BZA believed that the building would be compatible with the RC district "and is certainly significantly smaller than a number of other places of worship that have been approved in the RC district."
He also noted that, in the Supreme Court's standard of review, in order to reverse a BZA decision approving a special permit, "a court would first have to conclude that there was no credible evidence to support the decision and that the board had no choice but to deny the application."
Stoner stated that the BZA "imposed conditions to ensure that the mission ... would be harmonious with neighboring properties." And, he said, "Community opposition, no matter how pervasive or strident, is not a lawful basis for overturning a special permit."
He wrote that "harmonious" doesn't mean that proposed buildings must be similar in size and height to neighboring buildings. Requiring that a church match the scale of surrounding homes, wrote Stoner, "would preclude all but the smallest congregation from ever locating its meeting facilities in a residential area."
Indeed, he added, "It would have been a violation of federal law for the BZA to impose this restrictive standard because it would unreasonably restrict religious assemblies and institutions, in general, and the Mission, in particular."
Regarding the traffic issue, Stoner noted that the BZA imposed development conditions addressing traffic safety. It required the mission to construct a left-turn lane if, at the time of site-plan review, VDOT determines that it's warranted. It also required the mission to stagger its Sunday services with those of nearby Chantilly Bible Church.
When the case came to court, Aug. 12, resident Harry Heisler spoke on behalf of the residents. "We didn't want to deny the mission from building on this lot," he said. "We wanted to protect the rights of the homeowners."
He said a building "shouldn't hinder the use or development of adjacent or nearby properties, or the value of these properties." The root of the problem, he said, is that the mission would be too big a structure on a "long, skinny, 4.1-acre lot. They say it's 36 feet [high], but it's 45 feet. They haven't lowered the building, they've raised the ground."
Heisler also accused the BZA of exceeding its authority to waiving the requirement for a particular barrier between the mission and the residents. Calling the whole proposal "unreasonable," Heisler said the BZA "abused its statutory discretion and didn't [protect] the rights of all property-owners, not just the applicant's."
But Stoner said that, in special-permit cases, "the BZA clearly is given the authority to modify and waive the screening and barrier requirements." He said the BZA can decide what's appropriate to make a building compatible with adjacent properties and "there's ample legal support for [the BZA's power]."
He told Judge MacKay that "this case is about reasonable people disagreeing. The neighbors are entitled to present their case to you, but they're asking you to take on the legislative role of the BZA."
Stoner said harmony is a "subjective standard, and there's no basis in the record" for the residents' argument that the BZA didn't deal with this issue. Furthermore, he said, "The BZA acknowledged repeated reductions in the building's scale, and it's set back substantially further from the adjacent properties — 69-93 feet — than the 25 feet required."
Not only was the building reoriented on the site to try to please the residents, he said, but the BZA imposed 23 separate building conditions on the mission. And, added Stoner, "This court is in no position to second-guess the BZA."
"Were these people included in the process where the changes and reductions were made?" asked MacKay. When Stoner told her they were and that "it happened over more than a year," the judge upheld the BZA's decision.
Afterward, outside the courtroom, Pleasant Valley resident Cynthia Shang still argued that the BZA "overstepped its bounds in waiving the barrier requirement. The BZA didn't do its due diligence on behalf of us — just on behalf of the developer."
Resident Guillermo Montero, one of the petitioners, said, "We believe the concept of harmony should consider the way the neighbors live and shouldn't negatively affect them. Their parking lot will have more than 100 cars; we'll hear the engines turning on and see the lights, where now it's dark and quiet. We bought our house without that expectation."
"This is a zoning dispute, and these processes are put into place to preserve the consensus of civil society," said Heisler. "This BZA process — which is completely untethered from any elected representation and where people's only recourse is to the courts — is anti-democratic and non-transparent. It leaves the citizens with limited access to justice."
However, said Stoner, separately, "The BZA's purpose is to sort out these sorts of matters and weigh different interests. That's why it's given wide discretion as a legislative body, and the court did what it should — show proper deference to the BZA."
"It's not unusual for people to oppose something like this," he continued. "But the mere fact that there's opposition is no reason to deny it." Besides, he added, "To give the crowd a veto of a place of worship is illegal and impractical." If that were the case, said Stoner, "There wouldn't be any churches."
Meanwhile, pleased with the judge's ruling, longtime mission member Ram Nagrani said, "We'll do our best to be good neighbors. We've always hoped for our own church. We hope it'll be compatible with them and we'll finally have a home of our own."