Library Arising

Library Arising

Residents and officials celebrate the upcoming construction of Oakton Library.

Although no actual earth was turned, due to rainy weather, at Saturday morning's groundbreaking ceremony for the upcoming Oakton Library, the occasion still marked the breaking of new ground for the Providence District and for the county's library system. Oakton Library, the 27th branch of Fairfax County Public Library, will be the first branch in the Providence District and marks the first time in the county's history that a developer handed over the land for a library to be built.

When completed, the library will have 17,000 square feet of floor space, 75,000 books and 120 parking spaces. Sitting just north of the intersection of Chain Bridge and Hunter Mill roads, it should relieve the pressure on the smaller Patrick Henry Library in Vienna, which is the county's busiest library, and is also expected to draw some of the readers currently using Fairfax City Regional Library. The last loose ends of its planning were tied off in February.

County Board of Supervisors chairman Gerry Connolly said construction should begin in May, and he expects the building to be completed by October of 2007 — "before the election," he cracked.

AT THE GROUNDBREAKING, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites-Davis, one of many dignitaries present, joked to the 250 or so celebrants gathered at Unity of Fairfax Church that the construction of Oakton Library was "the only thing the state legislature has agreed on" this year. However, the history of the future library — and the land on which it will sit — is not characterized by agreement.

Ten years ago, the three acres on which the library will be built were part of a 19-acre plot of undeveloped land at the heart of Oakton. A portion along Hunter Mill Road was zoned commercially, and most was zoned for low-density residential construction. A proposal by a developer to commercially zone all of the area — except for a plot held by an elderly woman who later died — had been foiled in 1995 by residents who did not want to see another strip mall and/or office park in their neighborhood.

By 1998, another developer, Hearthstone Vanguard Group, had purchased the land and submitted a proposal that all of it be rezoned for higher density housing, which would have allowed up to 120 units to be built if affordable housing were included. Some residents supported the proposal because it would prevent commercial development. Connolly, then the Providence District supervisor, approved the recommendation, given a slightly lower density, and sent it along to the Board of Supervisors.

Many other residents, however, rallied against the proposal. Central to this movement was the citizens' group Options for Oakton, which pushed for lower density housing and alternate uses, such as parkland, a library and/or a pedestrian-friendly commercial town center.

THE CASE WAS DEFERRED repeatedly by the Board of Supervisors. The public meetings have been described by supervisors and citizens alike as "long and heated."

In late 1999, Connolly told Hearthstone Vanguard that the company needed to be more willing to compromise with the community, and Hearthstone came back with an application that included a lower proposed density and three acres set aside for a library. Connolly had been pushing for a library in the Providence District for years.

However, not everyone was satisfied by that proposal, either. George Lehnigk, a co-founder of Options for Oakton, and some other members of the organization, fought the proposal by pushing for a special tax district to be established in order to support a park on the land. They canvassed a selected area bordering the park and collected 3,300 signatures on a petition asking that each household in the area be taxed about an extra $138 per year in order buy the land from Hearthstone and make it a park.

The petition was intended to convince the Board of Supervisors to draw up the boundaries of a proposed special tax district and then put the matter up to the residents' vote. However, the board voted not to pursue the tax district option. Connolly, who had brought the matter before the board, said he conducted an informal poll of the residents who would have been affected, and the results came out slightly in favor of not creating the district.

Lehnigk contended that the poll results were never made public and that the 3,300 signatures collected came from an area including only 5,000 to 6,000 homes.

Opposition to the tax district came from those who did not want the increase in taxes, as well as neighbors of the proposed park who disliked the possibility of having lighted ball fields nearby.

IN 2000, the Board of Supervisors approved the proposal by Hearthstone Vanguard, which included just under 60 single-family homes and the land for the library, which was to be graded by Hearthstone.

By that time, Linda Byrne, a founding member of Options for Oakton, had already split from the group, in part because there was some question as to whether the library would have remained an option if the land became a park.

Byrne went on to co-found the nonprofit Friends of Oakton Library. The group campaigned for the library bond referendum of 2004, which included almost $8 million for the construction of the new library. They have continued to raise funds for programs at the library to supplement those that will be funded by Fairfax County.

Perhaps the most novel of these is the Paws to Read program created by Therapy Dogs Inc. The idea of the program, which would be available at the library only at certain times, is that students with reading difficulties are provided a nonjudgmental audience by dogs that are trained to listen to people read.

Another program for which the Friends group is raising money is the Book 'Em Foundation, which emphasizes the correlation between illiteracy and crime. Through Book 'Em, officers would appear at the library to read to children. Book 'Em also stages book fairs, author appearances, and writing and art contests.

Byrne said Friends of Oakton Library is also planning outreach programs for nearby facilities including Sunrise Senior Living; Oakton Elementary School; Children's World Learning Center, a preschool/daycare; and the Northern Virginia Friends School, a private Quaker school.

The group also hopes to have a small amphitheatre built on a half-acre piece of parkland near the library and has seen to it that trails will connect the library to Oakton Elementary and a nearby, seven-and-a-half-acre park.

Byrne said she felt the public/private partnership that gave rise to the library "could be a great template for the rest of the county, for the state and for the country."

"It's awfully nice to have good government working with good business and working with citizens and melding all those three together to make a win-win-win for all of us," she said.

"THIS IS a story with a happy ending," said Connolly. He said the nearby, 10-acre Corbalis property, soon to be Oakton Park, will be connected to the library by sidewalks and trails, and the two will create a central destination in Oakton. He, Lehnigk and Bob Adams, another Oakton resident, arranged the purchase of the property from the Corbalis family through a Park Authority bond.

"We anchor the Oakton community with this new amenity," he said. "We will have a place for the community to meet that will be publicly owned and will create a focal point for the community."

Lehnigk, who had envisioned a park, library and low-density commercial town center all in one location, expressed tempered disappointment with the final outcome. "We have all the parts — they're just in the wrong places," he said, noting that the Corbalis property is at least one-third of a mile from the library.

"You can't drive there, park and do all your activities on foot, like at Reston Town Center. They are three disparate, disconnected locations instead of one."