0
Votes

Council Debates School

Councilmembers engage in two heated discussions at July 11 meeting.

An open space referendum and the Northern Virginia Christian Academy special use permit for the lease of the former Westmore Elementary School were the two most popular items at the Fairfax City Council meeting, July 11. Several members of the community came to City Hall to voice their position on the issues.

The first issue that came up was the work session agenda item to consider putting an open space referendum on the ballot in the November election. When Mayor Robert Lederer opened the floor to the public for items on the agenda that didn’t call for a public hearing, the council heard many cases for supporting such a referendum.

“I care about open space,” said Hildie Carney, a City Council candidate in last May’s election. “We talked a lot about it during our campaigns.”

Carney went on to ask that councilmembers consider adding the referendum, and if they decide against it, she asked that they at least delay the approval of future development along the Route 50 corridor. The Fairfax Boulevard Partnership is studying development options for the corridor, and Carney would like council to “let them do their job.”

Carney wasn’t the only one making a correlation between Route 50 development and the open space referendum issue. Paul Sullivan, a resident of the County Club Hills neighborhood near Fairfax High School, thanked the council for its first open space purchase in 2002, at the intersection of Rebel Run and Route 50. Instead of going through with a four-story hotel at that site, which would have backed up to Sullivan’s home, the council bought the land for open space. Sullivan said he hoped the residents in the Mosby Woods community would be able to benefit from the same kind of council action, referring to a proposal for multi-use condominiums on a site in that neighborhood. He also said supporting the construction of the condos there now, as a move to prevent something worse from being built there in the future, isn’t a good enough position.

“The land should be preserved,” said Sullivan. “Attempts shouldn’t be made right away.”

SPENCER CAKE, a Mosby Woods resident who has widely advocated the placement of a bond referendum on the November ballot, said council needs to make sure the wording on the ballot would be for open space-conservation, which specifically protects acquired land from future development. Since the city’s Comprehensive Plan divides land use into three categories, many voters were unaware of the exact definition on the 2000 ballot’s open space advisory referendum, which asked for voters’ support of a real estate property tax increase “to provide a dedicated fund to purchase available land for the purpose of maintaining the land as open space or park land.”

This wording had many voters assuming the preservation of land as open space meant nothing would ever be developed there, said Cake, but the community later found out that wasn’t the case based on the three categories of open space: conservation, recreation and preservation. Open space-conservation is for lands used for visual buffering and passive recreation; the preservation category is for lands the city plans to keep in a natural state to the best extent possible. The recreation category is the problematic one, said Cake, since the vague definition states that the category is for lands used primarily for active recreation, which could end up meaning significant development for such uses.

When the topic came up later in the work session meeting, Mayor Robert Lederer said he wanted to make sure council would not associate the two when deciding on the referendum issue. He mentioned the Rocky Gorge application, which proposes to build high-density multi-use condominiums off of Fairfax Boulevard and Stafford Drive.

“Open space was around a long time before the Rocky Gorge application,” said Lederer. “My concern is those against Rocky Gorge are suddenly for open space and those for Rocky Gorge are suddenly against open space. I urge all of us to disconnect this; the Rocky Gorge application will be heard in September. The two do not connect, don’t do an injustice to one or the other.”

Councilmember Joan Cross said that “if the message in the community is that we’re against further purchases of open space, it’s wrong.” Councilmembers Cross, Jeff Greenfield and Gary Rasmussen all agreed the need for a referendum was not pressing since they are not opposed to open space, “if it makes sense, and we’ve got the money,” said Greenfield.

Council voted anyway to present the topic as a public hearing agenda item at the next meeting, July 25, since only three votes were needed to do so. At the meeting, four votes will be needed to get the referendum onto the ballot.

THE AGENDA ITEM taking up most of the July 11 meeting’s time was a special use permit application for the lease of the former Westmore Elementary School to the Northern Virginia Christian Academy (NVCA), a private Christian school grades K-12. The NVCA vacated its former location this past June, and needs a place to put more than 150 students already enrolled for the fall. Jeremy Root, an attorney from Blankingship & Keith, representing the NVCA, answered the many questions that followed the staff report presented to council by Michelle Coleman, city deputy director.

“The academy obviously supports the [city’s] application,” said Root. “We ask for some modifications.”

Root asked that the application approve a maximum enrollment of 450, not the 300 maximum proposed by city staff. Root said enrollment is likely to exceed 200 by this year, and they expect it to reach 450 by the end of the lease term.

Councilmember Rasmussen expressed his concern for the higher enrollment and said he doesn’t think the school has the capacity. He said if enrollment does end up increasing as much as the school said it would, they could always come back and ask city council to approve a higher maximum.

“I had a child attend Westmore when it was 350, and it was pretty crowded, I can tell you,” said Rasmussen.

Gary Perryman, president of the Westmore Civic Association, spoke to the council during the public hearing on the issue and said the community overwhelmingly supports the NVCA’s proposal. He said since the school’s funding relies on its tuition money, an amount determined by enrollment numbers, the community members he has spoken with have supported the 450-enrollment number.

“If you figure 25 students per 19 classrooms, you’d come up with a number that is considerably higher than what they’re asking for,” said Perryman.

LEDERER ASKED city staff if there would be a clear way to include in the permit a way to make the fields available to the community when they’re not in use by the school. City Attorney Brian Lubkeman said it would be fine, since the city owns the property, as long as the city does not infringe on the school’s use. Root implied that the proposed athletic field improvements would not be pursued immediately, since it would be a huge investment for the NVCA and would not make much sense now because of such a short-term lease.

“We would love to be in that facility for a while,” said Holly Marcario, a board member at NCVA. “We’d love to stay … we don’t expect the city to decide on that until you see how we fit in and interact with your city.”

After councilmembers discussed the school’s permit for nearly an hour and a half, dealing with everything from parking, buses and athletic fields, to car pool, enrollment and even the location of a dumpster, they approved the permit unanimously with only two amendments. Rasmussen asked for an amendment to keep enrollment at 350, but council voted to leave it at 450, as the NVCA requested. The only amendments were the length of the special use permit, which was originally supposed to be for two year, but Greenfield proposed for it to expire in three years, since that is the length of the lease before the two-year renewal option takes effect. Councilmember Gail Lyon also added an amendment to keep a dumpster in its current location behind the school’s cafeteria.

Once council approved the permit, representatives from the school became overjoyed. They congratulated each other in the hallway outside of the council’s meeting room, and said they were very pleased with the way everything turned out.

“I feel great,” said Greg Slater, principal of the NVCA. “We’ve been praying everyday. This is a great opportunity for us to meet many of our new neighbors.”

“I am so thrilled,” said Marcario. “We’re so grateful the city has embraced us so much.”