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Mission Opponents File Petition Against BZA

When the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) in December gave Sant Nirankari Mission the go-ahead to build a place of worship in Pleasant Valley, it marked the end of eight months of intense wrangling, compromise and hearings.

LONGTIME mission member Ram Nagrani thought it also meant the eventual fulfillment of the church's dream to have a place of its own. But that will all change if angry neighbors who just filed a petition in Circuit Court are successful in their attempt to get the BZA's decision overturned.

"It's just very unfortunate," said land-use consultant Jane Kelsey, who's represented the mission in its dealings with the county and community. "I am very disappointed because I think we and the mission representatives worked very hard to satisfy the neighbors and resolve their concerns."

Sant Nirankari Mission, a derivative of the Sikh religion, has been in the area for two decades. Centreville and Herndon residents are among its 70-75 members currently meeting in Chesterbrook 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 powder keg of opposition from residents there. And although the BZA blessed the project, the neighbors are still fighting it.

Sant Nirankari plans a two-level facility with prayer hall, offices, activity rooms and library. But since the land is zoned RC (residential conservation), it 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, the mission trimmed it to 12,152 square feet with 300 seats. It also decreased the average building height from 45 to 36 feet.

But the Pleasant Valley denizens argued that such a large church in the midst of their community of small homes would be incompatible with its surroundings. They also said it would require a left-turn lane from Route 50 south onto Pleasant Valley Road.

Now, incensed at the BZA's Dec. 7 ruling in the mission's favor, five residents — Harry Heisler, Eric Scheppen, Jon D'Andrea, Gladys Salas and Guillermo Montero — have filed a legal document asking permission to present oral arguments against it, in court. They want the BZA's decision overturned and their own legal costs in this matter to be covered. In their petition filed Jan. 13, and received by the Department of Planning and Zoning on Jan. 24, they explained the background of the case and told why they're so adamantly opposed to the project, as approved.

THEY NOTED that, at the BZA's April 27, 2004 hearing on this issue, six Pleasant Valley residents spoke in opposition and, one of them, Cynthia Shang, presented an accompanying petition signed by 97 people. She also spoke at the Nov. 2 hearing and, as of Nov. 22, had hand-delivered to the BZA some 45 letters and petitions totaling 359 signatures of residents not wanting the mission in their neighborhood.

In the Jan. 13 petition, the complainants write, "Despite the widespread and well-founded opposition to the Nirankari application throughout the Pleasant Valley community, on Dec. 7, 2004, the [BZA] granted the application and adopted a resolution thereon permitting the erection of the proposed building."

Stating that their properties would be "immediately affected" by this structure, the document calls the BZA's approval "illegal" and contends that the BZA was "without jurisdiction to act in the matter." Although BZA members cannot comment on this issue since it involves pending litigation, special-permit cases do come under BZA domain.

The petition states 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 states that Pleasant Valley homes average 21 feet in height and have 1,400 square feet of living space.

"The Nirankari applicants' proposed structure is gargantuan, relative to the rest of the neighborhood. [It would have] an average height of 36 feet ... and 12,152 overall square footage." So besides being much taller than homes there, states the petition, the mission would also be some eight to 10 times greater in square footage than the residents' homes. It says the mission's footprint would be six times larger than the average home in Pleasant Valley and charges that the BZA "ignored" these "egregious discrepanc[ies]" when making its ruling.

It cited another general standard saying a building's location, size and height shouldn't "impair" the value of nearby land and/or buildings. And it quotes a Realtor saying Pleasant Valley residents may expect a "$20,000 devaluation in property" because of the huge difference in size between their homes and the mission building.

AGAIN CITING a general standard stating that vehicle traffic associated with projects shouldn't be "hazardous or conflict with existing and anticipated traffic in the neighborhood," the petition notes that entry to the mission property is on a hazardous curve. Therefore, it contends, vehicles entering or exiting that site "without road improvements or a left-turn lane will create a vehicular traffic hazard or conflict with existing and anticipated traffic on Pleasant Valley Road." But VDOT isn't requiring a left-turn lane there.

The petitioners argue that the BZA shouldn't have considered the mission's Oct. 19 approval from the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee since WFCCA didn't testify at the BZA public hearing. But WFCCA Chairman Jim Katcham sent a letter to the BZA prior to that hearing, expressing his group's support of the mission's application.

The petition also argues that Pleasant Valley had no voting representative on the WFCCA. But, replied Katcham, "Pleasant Valley wasn't a WFCCA member at the time. However, it did have representatives at the meetings."

After the BZA approval, Nagrani said the mission plans to be a good neighbor. But if its up to the Pleasant Valley residents, it won't be a neighbor, at all.