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Votes

School House Rocks Commission Meeting

The fates of the Oakton School House and the Payne General Store appear to be sealed after last Wednesday's meeting of the Fairfax County History Commission.

For their presentation at the last meeting of the Fairfax County History Commission, Daniel Sponn and his wife Betsy Chittenden of the Hunter Mill Defense League had prepared a poster board graphic and a 26-page packet, but it appeared to be too late for such efforts to be effective. The 26 pages would not be read by commissioners before they took their vote at the meeting's end.

The Defense League, a civic association dedicated to preserving the scenery and history along Hunter Mill Road, has been fighting for the possibility of having both the historic school house, the historic Payne General Store, formerly Appalachian Outfitters, restored where they stand, at the intersection of Chain Bridge and Hunter Mill roads. Chevy Chase Bank is under contract to purchase the property for the construction of a 3,250-foot branch building.

Meanwhile, Providence District Supervisor Linda Smyth has been working with various entities including Friends of Oakton School House Inc., local developer West*Group and Chevy Chase for almost two years to plan what now appears to be the imminent move of the school house from its current location to the planned Oakton Community Park nearby.

The Hunter Mill Defense League's leverage in the disagreement comes from a decision made in August, when it was determined by the State Historic Preservation Office that the school house, the general store and a small residential structure on the same plot, along with the Oakton United Methodist Church across Chain Bridge Road, represent the "last vestiges of the village of Oakton," and constitute a historic district potentially eligible for the National Register. It was also determined that the individual structures were potentially eligible.

This potential eligibility meant Chevy Chase was required, under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, to explore all possible alternatives to moving or demolishing the structures before taking action. The bank was to mitigate its adverse effects to the historic value of the area as much as possible.

On Oct. 5, the History Commission, which has been made a consulting party in the Section 106 process, voted to submit a mitigation plan that included moving the schoolhouse, allowed for the demolition of the other two structures on the parcel and was nearly identical to the mitigation plan offered by John Milner Associates, who were contracted by Chevy Chase. One difference was that the commission asked that Chevy Chase be encouraged to design the new bank "in context with the historic district," although the district itself, of course, would no longer exist after three of its four structures had been removed.

The Hunter Mill Defense League has also been signed on as a consulting party. The Defense League continues to contend that the site can accommodate the bank by demolishing only the residential structure, relocating the other two buildings on site and moving the proposed Chevy Chase parking lot. This is one option Sponn said the bank had failed to explore, thereby failing to meet the requirements of Section 106.

AFTER WHAT SPONN said were repeated requests to make another appearance at a History Commission meeting — they had made a presentation over a year earlier — the Defense League, represented by himself and his wife, were placed on the agenda for last Wednesday. Scheduled to speak ahead of them on the same matter were Supervisor Smyth and Bob Adams, president of Friends of Oakton School House.

Smyth began the discussion by emphasizing the unusually convenient circumstances surrounding the plan to move the school house, while questioning the feasibility of the Defense League's plan.

She said that, initially, both onsite and offsite solutions were considered.

Smyth pointed out that the current site is commercially zoned. "You could put up a small office building on this site," she said. "It wouldn't have to come through any sort of public hearing process. We wouldn't have any proffer commitments. We wouldn't have any development conditions. We wouldn't get to say anything."

If Chevy Chase were not a federal agency, Section 106 would not apply to its construction.

Early on in the consideration of solutions, Smyth said, "the development community had offered, in fact, to go in and move the school house and do the restoration."

That was West*Group.

Smyth said that when she consulted Karen Washburn, then-commissioner for the Dranesville District, and Gary Simanson, who has since replaced Washburn, Simanson had said he did not think onsite preservation was economically feasible, even through adaptive reuse, whereby a company would purchase a structure, restore it, and use it for business purposes.

"And then when we told him, well, we actually had the proposal to move it — to restore it — and the Park Authority was indeed looking at a place to put it, he said, "Come on. This is a no-brainer. Move the school house. You've got a place. That's the most difficult thing.'"

She made reference to the historic Moorefield House, which has been deconstructed and is sitting in storage for lack of a place to put it.

Smyth said that during the public hearing process, which included a general hearing about the property before Chevy Chase had announced its offer, a hearing regarding the master plan for the new park where the school house would be moved and two more hearings about the Special Exceptions process to give the bank leeway to construct a drive-through and other features, "no one opposed moving that school house from this site to the new park. In fact, there was a lot of support."

She went on to say, "In this whole process, nobody mentioned any other building on the site."

The Hunter Mill Defense League had raised the question of the general store as a historic resource in the fall of 2004, and all of the public hearings took place before the August decision that the buildings taken together constituted a potentially eligible historic district.

On the other hand, Smyth said, no company had offered to restore and reuse the structures onsite. She pointed out the need to have some sort of business plan in place, "otherwise, you can have buildings that sit there until they are past the point of saving."

ADAMS, THE FRIENDS of Oakton School House president, pointed to the efforts that had already been made to move the building and the benefits and feasibility of sticking with the plan.

His organization, with Smyth's help, he said, had raised more than $500,000 to have the school house moved, restored and maintained and to develop the park with playing fields and playgrounds. "We worked hard to do this," he said, "so if I have some personal feelings I hope you'll understand that."

He pointed out that no money had been raised to restore the buildings onsite.

As for the plan to move it, he said this would benefit the community in three ways: "Number one, we preserve and save the Oakton School House. Number two, we get the park operational this year ... and third, all of this money is privately raised, so the taxpayers don't have to pay it."

What was being debated, he said, was moving the school house from one location in the historic district to another nearby location in the historic district. "This is the third location for the Oakton School House, so there is nothing sacred about that site," he said.

Adams also cited an increased risk of damage due to termites and possibly fire and vandalism, the longer the school house was left unrestored.

"I think it's time for the Hunter Mill Defense League to understand that this is the option and not be talking about pie-in-the-sky ideas," Adams said.

"IT SEEMS LIKE somehow this has gotten into we either support moving the school house or we don't support moving the school house," Chittenden said, "and somehow that pits us against a lot of good things."

She emphasized that the Defense League is only interested in seeing to it that the Section 106 process is fully completed.

She took issue with citing popular support for moving the school house and demolishing the other two structures, pointing out that public discussion took place before the state got involved, and she mentioned that the planned Oakton Park is not within this four-building historic district.

It is, however, in the area of the Hunter Mill Road Historic Corridor.

"If the buildings come down and the historic school house is moved, it's a nice artifact — it's a valuable piece of history that we've saved — but ... we will have lost a National Register historic district.

Chittenden also noted that the state had shown particular interest in the general store, as there are several historic school houses in the county but only one other identifiable historic general store.

The requirements for Section 106, she insisted, have not yet been met. She referred to a diagram crafted by the Hunter Mill Defense League demonstrating how they think the site could house the bank, the school house and general store and accommodate for the planned road-widening in front of the property, and she pointed out that Chevy Chase has not addressed this possibility.

"No one has shown yet that they can't have it all. That's what it comes down to," she said.

"What the Hunter Mill Defense League wants to put on the table at this point is that the History Commission can support having Chevy Chase Bank do, as is their obligation under federal law, a real evaluation of these alternatives."

Sponn noted that the State Historic Preservation Office backed the Defense League's position that Chevy Chase had not met their requirements. "If we get to the end of the Section 106 process and we can't find any alternatives, we support moving the school house," he said.

AT THIS POINT, Robert Beach, the chairman of the commission, reviewed the dates that various communications had been sent and discussions had occurred regarding the historic property. He discussed the substance of only one of these letters.

"On Nov. 8, VDHR [the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which houses the State Historic Preservation Office] put a response to all the community input that they'd had. They put forth a letter and documented what they thought should be done with the property," he said.

He went over the provisions, which included documenting the three structures on the site through data forms, drawings and photographs; placing of a commemorative plaque on the property; monetary contribution to the effort to move the school house; making the general store available for a set period of time to anyone willing to buy, move, restore and reuse it; working with the History Commission to develop a project to educate county residents on the history of commerce and education in the county; and developing a small publication on the history of Oakton.

The last four of these provisions were not included in the History Commission's proposed mitigation plan, offered in late December, although the commission's plan added the restoration of the school house and the request that the new bank's design be in accordance with the historic district.

It was not until later in the meeting that Commissioner Elise Murray, of the Hunter Mill district, pointed out that the recommendations in the letter from the Historic Preservation Office were not necessarily what the office thought best for the property but were presented in the context of commentary on input the office had received.

Chittenden pointed out that the input being commented on was not, in fact, from the community but was the proposed mitigation plan offered by John Milner Associates, who were hired by Chevy Chase Bank.

Earlier in the same letter, addressed to Chevy Chase Bank, the author had written, "We are not, however, as comfortable with the analysis provided for the other alternatives — retaining the historic buildings while building a new bank building on the site, or finding another site for the bank. In both instances, the analysis you have provided suggests that the bank's plans for the site have been fixed since before Section 106 consultation on this project began and that there was no intention of reconsidering that plan regardless of the findings and comments of the SHPO [State Historic Preservation Office]."

For its part, Chevy Chase had addressed the question of choosing a different site to the extent of saying, "Chevy Chase Bank is currently under contract to purchase the property with a significant deposit at risk. We are not able to simply walk away from the transaction at hand." The bank also noted that it does not have eminent domain status that would allow it to build wherever it liked.

Beach concluded by saying that it was his understanding that a memorandum of agreement was being written between Chevy Chase and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. "It is an indication from VDHR that anything else we have to say probably won't have a material effect," he said.

During the debate that followed, Sponn said the state had the option to invoke a "failure to agree" but needed local support to do so. "If the commission has an interest in getting Chevy Chase to come to the table and look at alternatives, the state would be willing to be at that table too and talk about those alternatives," he said.

Smyth responded that she thought the alternative of keeping the buildings onsite along with the bank was not realistic because of the size of the parcel. "It's just a matter that there are a lot of constraints on this site, and there are a lot of requirements that anyone building on this site would have to meet," she said.

The only commissioner other than Murray who expressed some reservations about upholding the commission's Oct. 5 vote was David Olin of the Dranesville District, who said he was concerned about the precedent the commission might set for itself by supporting the elimination of a potential historic district.

The commission voted to uphold its Oct. 5 decision without anydissenting votes.

AFTER THE MEETING, Sponn commented that he and his wife had not been prepared to take on Smyth and Adams, as well as the History Commission. "If we had known that, we would have had more people," he said.

He contended that a sentiment expressed at the meeting by at least two commissioners — that it appeared to be too late for the commission to alter the mitigation proposal — was unwarranted, saying the commission was speaking on behalf of Fairfax County.

"They have more clout in the matter than the Park Authority," he said, even though they will not be official signatories on the agreement.

Asked if she might have altered her approach if it had been determined earlier that the property was potentially eligible for the National Register, Smyth again pointed to feasibility. "This is the problem with historic resources," she said. "You need money, a place and a use for it."

Adams, too, restated the feasibility of the plan to move the school house and also mentioned the cooperation shown by Chevy Chase, which has now committed to pay for the move and the restoration and has pledged an additional $10,000 per year for 10 years to maintain the structure at the park.

"To me, it's amazing that anyone would be condemning Chevy Chase," he said. "In fact it has been a wonderful community citizen."

Asked if he felt the Section 106 requirements had been met by Chevy Chase, Beach responded, "We're not the ones who determine if 106 has been fulfilled."

He declined to comment on how the commission reached their Oct. 5 decision, saying it "would take hours" to give a full explanation.

As for last Wednesday's meeting, "We were asked to re-examine our position, and we did, and we decided to stay with it," said Beach. "And that's about all I can say."

Kristin Hill, who authored the State Preservation Office's communications about the issue, said she still did not feel the Section 106 requirements had been met but said she had passed the matter on to the federal Office of Thrift Supervision.

Hill confirmed that the History Commission was speaking for the county on this matter, but said it was hard to determine how much difference the commission could have made in the outcome.

However, she said, it would have given her office something to work with. "It's hard for us to argue for the preservation of something without interest at the local level, she said.

The Office of Thrift Supervision "is moving ahead with plans to license Chevy Chase on that area after those buildings are demolished," said Hill. "It looks as if we are preceding as the bank originally planned."

She said only Thrift Supervision and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation have the authority to alter plans at this point. "There's nothing else that I can do," she said. "We don't drive the truck."

Under whatever circumstances Chevy Chase moves onto the property, the new bank will be among friendly company. One reason cited by Hill for the bank to seek a different location was that there is already a Chevy Chase in the Giant supermarket in Oakton Center, directly behind the site. There is also a Bank of America next door and a BB&T bank across the street.