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Paul VI Expansion Plans Worry Neighbors

Future sports facility expansion plans could impede on historic residential property.

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Cedar Avenue resident and Historic Fairfax City president Karen Stevenson is concerned that Paul VI Catholic High School sports facility expansion could damage the historic and residential integrity of her neighborhood.

Expansion possibilities of Paul VI Catholic High School’s track, football and baseball fields that include moving into pre-existing residential property have initiated a petition movement among the school’s neighbors.

A draft of the school’s athletic facilities expansion plan filed with the City of Fairfax in October proposes the construction of a new baseball field by using 125 feet of two residential lots along Cedar Avenue. One of those lots contains the more than 100-year-old former home of John C. Wood, the first mayor of the City of Fairfax.

The two parcels were purchased by the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, which governs Paul VI, in 2002, according to Fairfax County property records.

The proposed expansion has concerned the residents of Cedar Avenue, who say that if approved, the improvements could mean more noise, traffic, a disintegration of the neighborhood’s residential integrity and damage to a local historic building.

"This is the character of our neighborhood," said Cedar Avenue resident Karen Stevenson, who is also the president of local non-profit history advocacy group, Historic Fairfax City, Inc. "We were concerned [since the Diocese bought the properties] that they wanted to increase their foot print in the neighborhood, and now that’s exactly what we’re seeing."

PAUL VI’S PLAN focuses on improving the school’s sports facilities, which have not been able to adequately meet the demands of the student’s sports teams for some time, said Nick La Duca Jr., director of operations at Paul VI.

"The baseball field, the football field and the track, the way that they are right now, they overlap, we can’t use them as we could official sports facilities," La Duca said. "So we have to play a lot of our games away from home, and that brings into questions of safety and control for the students."

When the school began to consider the expansion and improvement of the facilities, officials wanted to consider the opinions of the neighbors and make the process "as transparent as possible," said Reid Herlihy, director of Planning, Construction and Facilities for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington.

"We took [the neighbors] into account when we came up with the plan," said La Duca, who added that school officials have met with the Historic Fairfax Neighborhood Association multiple times to discuss the project.

BUT THE MEETINGS only came after Historic Fairfax Neighborhood Association members made several requests of the school after discovering the expansion proposal in June, according to Betsy Bicknell, president of the association’s board of directors.

"It didn’t really seem to us that there was a particular effort to get neighborhood input," Bicknell said.

The plan is inconsistent with what Paul VI principal Philip Robey previously told Cedar Avenue residents in an October 2002 letter. That letter stated that the school intended only to use the home for office space and possibly "tennis courts in the rear of the house sometime in the future."

The most pressing problems arise for residents of Cedar Avenue and their surrounding neighbors when considering an expansion of what could now be considered "a public nuisance" from the sporting events at the existing adjacent facilities, said Stevenson and Bicknell.

"With the noise that we get now from the speakers, the activity, we can’t even talk on the phone or eat dinner without closing the front door," said Stevenson. "Even I know that if you move a ball field even 50 feet closer with speakers and lights, it’s going to get louder. You’re eliminating the buffer zone."

If the expansion goes through, not only Cedar Avenue residents would see effects, Bicknell added.

"The fact is that the lights, as they are right now, are visible several blocks away," she said. "That’s something that we feel any improvement needs to address."

Local history also needs to be considered, according to Stevenson. Preliminary plans that show the removal of the garage and relocation of the home on the John C. Wood property as part of the expansion would compromise the structure’s historic integrity, she said.

"This was the home of the first mayor of the City of Fairfax," Stevenson said. "If that building is moved, I don’t see how it could ever be added," to the National Register of Historic Places.

IN ORDER FOR the expansion to take place, a final plan must be drafted and go through a public hearing and approval process by the Fairfax City Council. The plan has already entered the "pre-planning stage," where engineers and city officials will meet to draft a proposal.

As the project could use residential property, the council must also approve a request for a special exception and use permit which would effectively re-zone the land from residential, said Jack Blevins, City of Fairfax chief of community development.

The prospect of a long-term change to the rules of what can be built on neighboring property is the most disturbing for Bicknell.

"We’re sort of crammed in there next to lots of different commercial ventures the way that is now," she said, "and we don’t want them to encroach any further into our neighborhood."

"We like the way the neighborhood is now … we don’t want it to become commercial."

If the change is approved, it is unlikely that the properties would revert to residential in the future, he added.

"This will really depend on the applicant," Blevins said. "Since you have this area surrounded by residential properties, you could go back to residential … but economically, I wouldn’t see the switch back to residential if it is changed."

WHILE SCHOOL officials want to be good neighbors, they have a right to seek approval to improve their property, according to Herlihy. Herlihy added that he did not feel that the John C. Wood house would be damaged if it is moved.

"The bottom line is that if we cannot improve any of our property, that is unreasonable," he said. "Besides, this is not a done deal and we’re looking forward to working with city officials and the neighbors."

Plenty of time remains before the decision is to be made. The way the project stands, no funds are available to initiate the construction of the expansion, Herlihy said.

For the neighboring residents, the improvements are not so much the problem as the prospect of damage to the neighborhood’s livability, said Bicknell. A petition has begun filtering through city residents in opposition of the plan’s concept, she added.

"They knew what they were getting when they bought that property and we’re only asking them to stay within their boundaries," Bicknell said. "We’re not saying that they can’t change, we just don’t want them to go outside their borders."

Herlihy said that he hopes the disagreement would be settled in a way that is acceptable to both parties.

"This is the classic friction between any neighborhood that is in close proximity to a school with a lot of kids," he said. "The question for us is how we can most thoughtfully change it to meet concerns of the neighbors and give the kids something too."