With the South County Secondary School almost filled to capacity and another 500 students expected to start next fall, pressure to find funding for a middle school is starting to build.
During the Monday, Oct. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Gerald Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) proposed a motion to support a conversation that could provide some preliminary funding for the construction of the middle school — through the sale of the former Lorton School building, currently housing the transportation offices for the southern part of the county.
Before the building can be sold, however, the office needs to be relocated. Part of Hyland's motion, which the Board unanimously approved, suggested the office could be relocated to a building on the former Lorton Prison site.
The consequences of putting a transportation office in the Reformatory Administration offices include the potential hindrance of developers who may otherwise be interested in the land, said Peter Dickinson, president of the Laurel Hill Community Association. "The Reformatory, several dormitories and the administration buildings had been planned for use as a residential area with retail and this would put a transportation office in the middle of it," he said.
Dickinson is concerned about a possible precedent the decision could set, which would alter the "vision" the community created for the former prison site. "The last thing that will make this a residential area is to have a bus depot in the middle of it," he said.
No decisions have been finalized, said Dickinson, but he is hopeful the county will "return to the vision of the Laurel Hill task force," he said.
The reuse and redevelopment plan created by the Laurel Hill task force included plans for a residential community and small shopping center with restaurants, said Elizabeth Bradsher, a Fairfax Station resident who served as a representative on the Laurel Hill Task Force.
"We did not want administrative offices or services located here. We planned for mixed use, with some condos and retail," she said.
Tim Sargeant, a member of the Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse Advisory Committee, said the future of the site as a whole needs to be considered before decisions can be made.
"The task force recognized the Comprehensive Plan process and wanted to focus on uses that have synergy, not just one project at a time," said Sargeant. "
The Citizens Oversight Review Committee, of which Sargeant is also a member, still has to study the proposal and make its recommendation, he said. "From an oversight perspective, we need to see how it relates to the reuse plan and the [Requests for Proposals] project," he said. Requests for proposals, or RFPs, have recently been sent out to developers to gauge interest and determine the possible renovation and development of the former Lorton prison site, he said.
"Based on the input we've received, it would've been preferable to get the RFPs reviewed and analyzed before the nomination was sent," Sargeant said.
Currently, the former Lorton School building houses the transportation headquarters and some Special Education offices and services for the Fairfax County School System, said Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of facilities and transportation services. The county recently expressed interest in selling the property to Inova for use in an expansion project it has planned in the Mount Vernon district of Fairfax County, he said.
In addition, the Virginia Department of Transportation has plans to construct a ramp at the intersection of Route 1 and I-95 in the vicinity of the building, which is making it difficult for buses and other vehicles to access the building, Tistadt said.
Buses are neither refueled or repaired at the office, Tistadt said, but during "any given day, between 20 and 30 buses stop by for business. On occasion, there may between 30 and 40 buses parked here at a time," he said.
In a perfect world, Tistadt said, he would have the office relocated to an area close to a major road and still in the south part of the county, large enough to keep all of the offices and services together but also to bring in the remainder of the Area One transportation group, currently located in Merrifield.
Establishing a facility on the Engineer Proving Ground, formerly owned by Fort Belvoir, had been discussed but he and Hyland have decided that area is "no longer an option" due to various problems.
The Reformatory Administration building on the Lorton site would "need a lot of work," said Tistadt, including the installation of water, sewer and electrical services.
Any steps to move the transportation offices to the former prison site are years from occurring, Tistadt said.
He is sympathetic to any concerns people who live in that area may have.
"It's safe to say that no one wants us in their neighborhood because buses run every day and they make a lot of noise when they start up. But if residents want reliable transportation to get their children to school safely, it has to go somewhere," Tistadt said.
If the building is listed as a surplus site and eventually sold, the money from that sale may be used for any number of purposes. One of those purposes could be funding construction of a middle school in the southern part of the county, Supervisor Hyland suggested.
Sale of the former Lorton School building may only generate $4 million or $5 million, a small portion of the $40 million a new school is estimated to cost, Sargeant said.
However, the Capital Improvement Plan, which is established by the county to fund school renovation and construction projects, lists the South County middle school project as part of its plan for 2014 or 2015.
"You cannot pre-empt a community's funding so it jumps ahead of another project," Bradsher said. "All the projects are in a queue and they all compete with each other for funding."
Suggesting that the money would be dedicated to the middle school project and not put into the general queue is "an empty promise," Bradsher said. "All we can do is fight for a change in the queue."
Hyland's suggestion, in addition to "allowances" she said were made during the construction of the South County Secondary School, have put the community "in a position of need."
"This school just opened and after this year, we'll be overcrowded," she said. "This school was originally only supposed to take 2,230 kids and unless some programs are dropped, we'll be over capacity in the fall," Bradsher said.
The South County Secondary School has a capacity of 2,500 students in seventh through twelfth grades. This year, there are 2,464 students in seventh through eleventh grades.
Further complicating the issue is a letter from Greg Werkheiser, a Democratic candidate for the 42nd District House of Delegates seat.
The letter, which was issued Oct. 18, Werkheiser said he was involved in conversations that led to Supervisor Hyland's proposal. This claim angered many residents of the community, whom Dickinson said were not notified about the possibility of the relocation of the transportation office until after the Board of Supervisors meeting.
Werkheiser's letter stated that the need for the middle school has grown with the possible addition of "20,000 new jobs coming to Fort Belvoir over the next few years" because of the Base Relocation and Closure Commission decision to close offices in the Pentagon and Crystal City.
Werkheiser began talking with Hyland and Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald Connolly (D-At-large) about alternatives for funding the middle school and he said together they discussed selling the Lorton School.
"The Lorton building is a surplus building and the sale of it could help to refurbish the administration building and any left-over money could go to the middle school if the School Board agreed to take the money and put it toward that construction and not into the general fund," said Werkheiser.
Dickinson said members of the community were alarmed by Werkheiser's letter, as they had not been approached about the possible relocation of the transportation offices to the Lorton site prior to the Board of Supervisors meeting.
Ultimately, the decision on what to do with the Lorton School building and any money that comes from the sale of that property will be made by the School Board.