Troubled Over Church Plans

Troubled Over Church Plans

A proposed three-story garage remains the focus of distress.

When an attorney unveiled plans last week for a tenfold expansion of Heritage Fellowship United Church of Christ, members of the Hunter Mill District Land Use Committee sat quiet minus a few questions and intermittent attempts to bring order to the contentious crowd.

About 40 neighbors opposing the plans bumped heads Tuesday, Feb. 21 with about 60 church members who came out in support of the plan. The church has proposed to raze the 218-seat, 4,760-square-foot facility built 22 years ago to make way for a newly designed, 844-seat church, approximately 49,000 square feet.

Among an onslaught of concerns about the expansion, including fears of increased traffic and the size of buffer areas, the lightning rod issue for neighbors remains to be a proposed three-story parking garage.

The three-hour meeting, which was standing room only in the community room at the North County Governmental Center, drew about 115 people, many of who were asked to stand in the hallway or lobby so the room’s 88-person fire code limit wouldn’t be violated.

The church, in the first step of a lengthy process, will seek approval from the Hunter Mill committee in the coming months before it presents plans to Fairfax County’s planning and zoning committee in June. Last month, the church began vetting its proposed expansion with immediate neighbors at informal meetings, where neighbors say church officials said they wouldn’t cede any changes to their plan, setting up for a fractious meeting.

SIMPLY PUT, the church needs more worship space, said Mary Theresa Flynn of Holland & Knight LLP, the church’s attorney, who presented the plans to the land use committee.

Heritage Fellowship’s congregation, too big for its existing church on the 5.3-acre site at 2505 Fox Mill Road, holds its Sunday services at the auditorium at Herndon High School. “About 560 members attend our first service, and about 270 attend the second,” said Roderick Mitchell, chairman of the church’s building committee, who added that 60 percent of the congregation lives in the community.

“Keep in mind that a majority, if not all, of what we are asking for is already approved,” said Flynn, referring to a special permit for the construction of an 844-seat facility the church received in 1984. While the permit is still applicable, the church has since made several significant changes to its plans, which require approval.

THE PROPOSED plans include a 100-seat wedding chapel, a 4,800-square-foot multi-purpose room and classroom space for a Sunday school to accommodate all ages, from toddlers to seniors.

But no change has caused as much contention as the addition of a 311-space parking garage, which exceeds county requirements by 100 spaces. In all, the changes require rezoning and a special use permit approvals from the county.

“Let’s talk a moment about this famous garage,” said Flynn, who proceeded, with help, to unravel a piece of yarn across the room to show the audience 20-, 24-, and 27-feet distances, three varying heights of the garage.

She was interrupted when someone yelled, “The orientation is slightly different when it’s going up.”

Since one level will be built partially under ground, Flynn said that the proposed garage is only two stories, which is inconsistent with the model she presented.

“[The proposed changes] are significant. I don’t think it’s appropriate to make it sound like it isn’t a big deal,” said Charles Moses, a board member of the homeowner’s association for the Courts of Fox Mill, about 112 homes behind the existing church closest to the proposed parking garage. “You’re taking a three-story parking garage and plopping it into the middle of a community.” If approved, Moses observed, the parking deck would be the first at any church in Reston. “I don’t know if that’s a precedence the county wants to make,” said Moses.

MANY NEIGHBORS said they feared the prospect of a parking deck in their backyards. “We actually like that were next to a church, but we certainly didn’t expect to see a parking garage next to us,” said VJ Bala, who lives in the Courts at Fox Mill. “We’re going to be completely blocked out of the sunlight.”

A couple of neighbors suggested that the church do away with its plans for the parking garage and consider an alternative, such as using surface parking or the park & ride lot down the street on the corner of Fox Mill Road and Reston Parkway. Maybe church members could use the park & ride lot and take shuttles to the church, said Bala, who uses a similar service when his family goes to church.

Many church members, including several who live very close to the church, told the committee how important the expansion plans are to the church’s congregation. “I hope you all understand that we are not building just for the sake of building,” said William Sloan, who lives at Fox Mill Estates, a community across the street from the church. “Heritage has been a wonderful place to nurture our children and to grow — it’s an asset to the community.”

THE MEETING TOOK an unexpected turn, when Flynn, in her opening presentation, suggested that prejudice may be an underlying reason for the opposition to the church’s expansion plans. Heritage Fellowship’s congregation is predominantly black.

“I am hurt and frankly offended at the homeowners I saw tonight — about the fact that we want to expand our church and you’re concerned about your public safety,” said Flynn, who is white. “Look around at your neighbors [members of the congregation], can you really tell me you’re concerned about your security?” Flynn, who said that security had not been a concern when other local churches planned for expansion, based her comment on a flyer that was distributed by neighbors, which cited “public safety/security” as one of several concerns.

Neighbors were equally offended by Flynn’s suggestion, claiming she took the flyer’s wording out of context and didn’t allow an explanation. “We think it’s a great church. We think they’re great neighbors,” said Moses. He said, however, that an unmonitored parking garage could pose problems at night. “I don’t think that’s offensive, I think that’s the kind of concern that needs to be addressed.” Almost every person who had issue with the expansion plans said they thought the church was a good neighbor and supported the expansion, only not as it was currently being proposed.

Flynn’s suggestion, however, didn’t stop neighbors from voicing their opposition to the expansion plans. No church member made a similar suggestion as Flynn’s.

ANOTHER MAJOR issue brought up was traffic. “Right now, Fox Mill Road is a two-lane road. We believe the expanded use of the church is inconsistent with a two-lane road,” said Kimberley M. O’Halloran-Cordray, an attorney with Rees, Broome & Diaz who represents the Courts of Fox Mill. Several other neighbors, including church members, repeated this worry, saying that the congested road will not support an expanded church.

Many others were concerned about the wooded buffer between the church and residential properties. “The buffer is my main concern,” said Mike Lockwood, who lives adjacent to the church in Stratton Woods, a community with 280 homes. Lockwood urged the church to consider “more evergreens, more evergreens, more evergreens.”

The committee, which was absent four of its nine members, tried to allow everyone to speak, but urged speakers to keep their comments focused to land-use issues.

By the end of the meeting, it seemed tensions has subsided somewhat with both sides more committed to working through differences.

“This is going to be wonderful when it’s done,” said Lockwood, “but it’s probably not going to look like this.” He noted that the approval process is a long one, and that sometimes compromise is required. “The thing to remember is that we’re neighbors now and we’ll be neighbors when it’s done.”

Edythe Frankel Kelleher, chair of the Hunter Mill District Land Use committee, reiterated the give-and-take of the proposal process. “I’ve seen plenty of applications that have morphed over the months after getting input from the community,” she said.