Depending on the point of view, the Heritage Fellowship United Methodist Church will increase in size 10 times, or two. Either way, the neighbors think it's too big.
"All of the neighbors were struck by what we thought was a huge difference in size and scale," said Charles Moses, president of the Courts of Fox Mill Homeowners Association. Moses was speaking during the Oct. 12 meeting of the Fairfax County Planning Commission.
In 1984, the church was granted its initial approval to build a structure of up to 27,000 square feet with 844 seats. But the congregation built a church that was just 4,760 square feet, including 218 seats. The church, on Fox Mill Road near Pinecrest Road is ready to expand, but says its roughly 1,600 members need even more space than they had initially been permitted.
On most Sundays, the church holds an early morning service at the church before moving to Herndon High School for the rest of its services and to hold its religious school, said Norman Tate, the church's head pastor.
So the church has filed with Fairfax County to change the zoning on the 5-acre parcel, a change which would allow a larger building. The proposed new facility would be just over 46,000 square feet. The church is not asking to increase the number of seats above what is already permitted — 844, or an increase of 626 seats over the current church. It is asking to increase the number of approved parking spaces from 211 to 295 — 66 are currently built.
The church had initially proposed a three-deck parking garage for the additional parking, but that idea was scuttled after community opposition. As a result, the church is proposing more surface parking, even though it will result in greater land disturbance and the loss of more trees. The church says it will plant a buffer of trees and bushes around the edge of the property, said Stuart Mendelsohn, attorney for the church and a former member of the Board of Supervisors from the Dranesville District. "They're very much concerned about keeping this a church in the woods," he said.
Karen Herman, whose property abuts the church, said she was concerned that the headlights from churchgoer's cars would spill into her home.
Mendelsohn said that once the plantings grow, the greenery will block the headlights.
THE NEIGHBORS are also concerned about the traffic impacts on Fox Mill Road, is a narrow, two-lane road, said Moses.
Mendelsohn noted that the number of seats is not increasing above what the church is already permitted. He said the only real impact would be on Sunday, when the church will be able to hold all of its services on-site and not have to go to the high school.
"The programmatic uses of the church are not changing, except Sundays," Mendelsohn said. "Will there be more traffic on Sundays? Absolutely, but, we can do that today."
During the week, the additional space would allow church members room for classes and other activities which are already happening. "Most of the activities are already going on," said Mendelsohn.
Commissioner Suzanne Harsel (Braddock) told the neighbors that they might be better off with a larger church. A larger sanctuary can accommodate worshippers in fewer services.
If the church uses a smaller sanctuary, they may then hold five or six services a day instead of two, she said. "Then, the traffic is ongoing."
Commissioner Frank de la Fe (Hunter Mill) said he did not want to make a motion on the proposal until the Hunter Mill District Land Use Committee had a chance to make its recommendation.
The Planning Commission deferred its decision until Oct. 18. Commissioner Jim Hart (at large) recused himself from the hearing. Mendelsohn is also representing McLean Bible Church, which is suing the Board of Zoning Appeals, and Hart sits on the Board of Appeals.
Commissioner Walter Alcorn (at large) also left the room during the public hearing, but he did not say why.