When Donna Turner looks out from her back deck she sees a narrow stretch of trees, which divides her backyard from the surface parking lot of the Heritage Fellowship United Church of Christ.
But recently she’s had nightmares about the prospect of one day staring at a 311-car parking garage as tall as her three-story home.
“My deck would literally be just feet away from this parking structure,” said Turner, a Reston resident who lives in the Courts of Fox Mill.
This month, Heritage Fellowship will start down the approval process for plans to build a new church. The plans include razing the 22-year-old, 4,760-square-foot facility to make way for a newly designed church more than 10 times that size, approximately 49,000 square feet. Seating at the new church would increase from the existing 218 seats to 844 seats.
“We are excited about this,” said Rocky Mitchell, chairman of the church’s building committee.
In 1984, the church received approval to construct an 844-seat facility. After years of fund raising from the congregation, the church now intends to see an updated variation of those plans become a reality. But the parking garage wasn’t part of the original plan.
“[The church officials] really felt strongly about keeping as much of the property’s open space as possible,” said Stuart Mendelsohn, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP hired by Heritage Fellowship, explaining the reasoning behind the parking garage on the 5-acre plot. “Topographically, [the parking garage] is below the houses.”
Because Heritage Fellowship’s congregation has already outgrown the existing church on Fox Mill Road, Sunday services take place at the auditorium at Herndon High School to accommodate the crowds.
“On any given week, attendance ranges from 500 to 600 people,” said Mitchell.
Mendelsohn, who served eight years on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and two years on the Fairfax County School Board, said the church has begun vetting the plans to immediate neighbors and other community members.
AT THIS POINT, neighbors don’t object to the church increasing in size. “We’re OK with the church’s expansion,” said Victoria Florestano, a Reston resident whose backyard would face the proposed parking garage. “What we're most concerned about is the scale. We want to make sure that the scale is appropriate for the residential community.”
For Florestano and others, the parking garage goes beyond what is appropriate.
“There’s just no concept of scale,” said Florestano.
Turner said the proposed facility would be a “mega church,” running down the laundry list of new features, such as a multi-purpose room and a classroom area.
Another issue for neighbors is the added traffic to Fox Mill Road.
“I can’t imagine the traffic in and out,” said Florestano. “The traffic’s already bad now. [Fox Mill Road is] just a two-lane road.”
As Turner points out, all of the 120 households at the Courts of Fox Mill must exit their community via Fox Mill Road. “There’s no back way out,” she said.
“Look at the actual model. It blends in extremely well with the idea of green space, which is one of the things we want to preserve on the lot,” said Mitchell, adding that the new facility will be an “elegant statement.”
MENDELSOHN AND OTHERS representing the church expect that concerns from the neighboring community can be worked out.
“We plan on setting up a series of meetings to reach out to the community,” said Mendelsohn. “The intent is to minimize the impact to the neighbors.”
Meanwhile, the approval process is moving forward. On Feb. 21, the Hunter Mill District will conduct its land-use meeting at the Reston District Police Station. Neighbors and adjacent homeowners' associations opposed to the size of the plans and the parking garage plan to have their voice heard at the meeting.
“If we could avoid the parking structure that would be a start,” said Florestano, who, along with other community members, has begun expressing her concerns to Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill).
The church has not been a bad neighbor, said Turner.
“It’s just the size and scope of the expansion.”
“We are planning a petition of our neighborhood and surrounds, and delivering a formal presentation at the Planning Commission meetings,” said Florestano.
Mitchell said construction of the new church will begin as soon as the approval process is complete. Once started, he expects the construction will last 14 to 15 months.