Local land-use meetings don't usually attract large audiences. But there was standing room only Tuesday night when members of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Centreville came out to support their church building project.
THINGS BEGAN pleasantly enough. But before the night was through, both their patience and good nature were sorely tested — and they found themselves defending the church's good name.
"We're good citizens," said the Rev. Richard Hardy, associate minister. "We work like everybody else and we vote. We're not seeking preferential treatment, but we are here."
In 2000, Mount Olive received a rezoning to add more land and a special-exception permit to build a preschool/childcare facility. And in October 2005, it broke ground for a new sanctuary.
But the design proved too expensive to build and had just 1,000 seats (Mount Olive has 400 now). So the church drew up a plan seating 1,150 people, although it eventually wants seats for 350 more. But because it revised its plans, it couldn't proceed until it obtained a whole, new review and approval from Fairfax County.
That process is still continuing and, on Tuesday, attorney Steve Fox presented details of the project to the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee. First, though, the Rev. Eugene Johnson, the senior pastor, addressed the panel.
"We're here because of necessity," he said. "Mount Olive has been in Centreville in the same location for over 100 years. And as a result of church growth, we have to expand our facilities. As we move forward, we do it with the intent of quality of life and community services and activities. There are some challenges, but we believe what we want to do is for the good of the whole community."
FOX SAID the church needs a special-exception permit amendment because of the plan changes it made. However, he added, "This site is one of the most difficult to plan. It's a lot of space encumbered by a lot of impediments. It's overlain by the regional, power-transmission lines, and storm and natural-gas-pipe easements."
He said parking's one of the most significant issues. Mount Olive's would be "largely aligned in the same position it now exist in," said Fox. "We have 382 spaces and have negotiated [with county staff] a one-to-three ratio for 1,150 seats."
He also said the new sanctuary wouldn't increase in size until the church can make the required improvements to the north side of Mount Olive Road. Said Fox: "If we want more seating, up to 1,500 seats, we'd have to put in more parking."
The main issues of contention, he said, are transportation improvements the county is requiring the church to make on Mount Olive, Old Mill and Old Centreville roads, as a condition of approval. Old Centreville is proposed to get full, frontage improvements, but Old Mill was improved earlier by developer Stanley Martin who had to do them in exchange for approval to build new homes nearby.
Regarding the work on Mount Olive, said Fox, "This church does not impact that road. We don't put any traffic on it, except for those few folks who live in that neighborhood. So the Mount Olive frontage improvements would be made at such time as property to the north of Mount Olive is improved. To do those improvements now would blow the budget and force the church to curtail its plan and return to its previous one."
He also noted that the church has agreed to have its members exit on Old Mill only on Sunday between 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Still, he added, "The [county] Department of Transportation is concerned because of its proximity to Mount Olive Road."
The WFCCA's Carol Hawn, who lives in the nearby Old Mill community, requested more information from the county's previous approval of the church's plan. She also asked church representatives to meet with neighboring communities to advise them of the new proposal.
As for the church exit onto Old Mill Road, she said, "Mount Olive [Road] won't be a quiet, deserted street on Sundays, anymore. It'll be one of the main access roads to Capital Worship Center to the south, and I won't be able to get from my home to my church on a Sunday morning because of all the churches coming in, in [Centreville's] southwest quadrant."
HAWN SAID congregants will take the back roads to avoid Route 28's traffic and, once the Korean Central Presbyterian Church is built, its members will also add to the Sunday traffic congestion. Said Hawn: "I think it's a dangerous exit, also because of sight-distance issues."
"I know what goes into building a church," she continued. "But I also believe churches should be good neighbors, and I firmly believe Mount Olive Road needs to be improved."
The Rev. Johnson instantly stood up to reply. "We are good neighbors," he said. The challenge, he explained, is for the church to be able to do what it needs to do with a finite amount of resources. He said doing the road improvements up front would seriously impact the church's financial ability to build a new sanctuary, at all.
"This church has more land to give, than money," added Fox. "And we've given right-of-way on Old Mill and on Mount Olive to improve it, and we'll give more on Old Centreville Road."
Since the county, and not VDOT, is asking for the road work, WFCCA's Scott Miller, of Chantilly's Pleasant Valley community, noted the Sant Nirankari Mission case that previously came before the panel.
"Although residents said [Pleasant Valley] Road there was dangerous, VDOT didn't mandate that it be improved," he said. "If [road improvements] are not mandated, you've got to be fair."
The crowd applauded him loudly, but Hawn countered that "A church should be looked at as a land-use issue and shouldn't be treated any differently than any other applicant." Shortly afterward, the Rev. Hardy made his comment about Mount Olive not seeking preferential treatment.
Agreeing with Miller, WFCCA's Russ Wanek said, "Regardless of our personal perceptions, if VDOT says 'No problem,' we can't make that an issue when the people who are ultimately responsible for saying yea or nay have said, 'Yea.'"
Added Hardy: "I say to Mrs. Hawn, if you can't get to your church on Sunday morning, you're welcome to come to our's."
Rubin Cuffee, chairman of Mount Olive's Trustee Board, told the WFCCA that the church has struggled to build a new sanctuary for seven years. But, he emphasized, "Mount Olive Road has been an issue for much longer. So I ask that you support us in our application."
"I think these are solvable issues," said At-Large Planning Commissioner Jim Hart. "This site presents a pedestrian conflict on the north side of Mount Olive Road. People zip along, cut the corner and go too fast, so pedestrians have to be carefully located where they'll least conflict with the cars flying around the corner."
He said the driveway coming out to Old Mill Road adds to the pedestrian danger. So, said Hart, "Eliminating cars from one of those points of conflict would be a good thing."
Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37th) also spoke on behalf of the church. "I live down the street from the church, and I also hear from constituents living along Mount Olive Road," he said. "Their focus is on the intersection of Old Mill and Old Centreville roads. There have just been some improvements made there, and a stop sign was added where Mount Olive meets Old Mill."
CUCCINELLI said he's seen that stretch of road in all conditions, and the communities living along it — including his own, Hanna Estates — "wouldn't have any aversion to the improvements to the north side of Mount Olive Road waiting until the church has to deal with the development of that property [in the distant future]."
Furthermore, he said, "There's no reason on the planet for people attending Capital Worship to drive down that street. I feel very strongly that, if all our problems centered around expanding churches, there'd be a lot less problems. From my end of the road, it looks like a good plan and a good chronology of development."
The church's appearance Tuesday at WFCCA was for information only; Mount Olive representatives will probably return next month for a further update of their plans.