First Baptist Church Project: Déjà Vu All Over Again

First Baptist Church Project: Déjà Vu All Over Again

The Arlington County Board approved a retooled version of the project after the initial version was struck down by the state Supreme Court.

Impassioned speeches were given. Banners and signs were held up. Sloganeering t-shirts were worn.

But in the end, nothing could stop the Arlington County Board from voting to approve the First Baptist Church of Clarendon (FBCC) project.

In a four-to-one vote, the Board approved the erection of a 10-story apartment building on the church’s property located just northeast of the Clarendon Metro.

The planned building will contain 116 apartments, 70 of which will be designated as affordable housing and rented at below market value rates. The plan also calls for an additional $2.1 million in loans from the County’s affordable housing funds to go towards the project, bringing the total amount of County money spent on the FBCC project to $6.6 million.

The project was controversial for several reasons. Many residents of the Lyon Village neighborhood, located near the FBCC, do not want a ten-story building in close proximity to their homes. Others feel that it is inappropriate for the County to be allocating funds to a religious entity. And many were concerned that if the county were to approve the project, it would allow future boards to rezone any residential property.

The project was originally approved by the Board in 2004. But a group of Lyon Village residents sued the County and won in Virginia Supreme Court late last year.

The County Board felt the Court ruled against them not because of the project itself but rather because of a technical problem with the rezoning of the property. So with some minor tweaks, the Board agreed to consider the project again.

The vote drew a standing-room-only crowd to the County Board’s monthly meeting. More than 100 concerned citizens heatedly but respectfully voiced their opinions to the Board during the almost eight hour meeting.

Opponents of the project wore shirts that read, "Affordable Housing: Yes! Illegal Rezoning: No!" Many brought their children to the all-day affair. However, they were heavily outnumbered at the meeting, if not out-vocalized, by supporters of the FBCC project.

Noreen McIntosh, a member of the FBCC who works in Arlington, supported the project because of its affordable housing. "It would be nice to live where I work," she said, "but my salary doesn’t allow it."

Ellen Bozman, a former County Board member and now with the Alliance for Housing Solutions, said that, while the case is complicated, "the Board is acting totally within their rights on this."

Kathy Lash, an Arlington resident, disagreed. "You can make zoning laws because [the Board and the neighborhoods] have an agreement," she said. "To make [arbitrary] zoning changes is to break that agreement."

Politics were also on display at the meeting. Mike McMenamin, the president of the Maywood Civic Association and the Republican candidate for County Board in 2006, has told the Arlington Connection that he is leaning heavily towards running again in 2007. He spoke at the meeting to register his disdain for the FBCC project.

"This is just a way to get money into the church coffers," he said, a comment that did not sit well with the many members of the FBCC that were in attendance. "The Board should make a compromise and do it the Arlington way."

THE BOARD SAW IT DIFFERENTLY, as was evidenced by their 4-1 vote to approve the project.

Even the lone dissenter, Chairman of the Board Paul Ferguson (D), seemed to be somewhat equivocal. "The benefits for this project are undeniable," he said. "I think the church is trying to do a good thing here."

But Ferguson, who is not seeking re-election to the Board in November, voted against the project because he said that he was unwilling to alienate such a large group of citizens. "I feel very strongly that zoning is a partnership between the board and the community," he said. "I really regret the bad feelings the community has [on this project]."

The other board members, Walter Tejada (D), Chris Zimmerman (D), Barbara Favola (D) and Jay Fisette (D), explained their votes by categorically addressing all of the opponents’ objections.

One of the first claims that was addressed was that the project violates the separation between church and state.

Board members pointed out that, unlike in the previous attempt to pass this project, this time the FBCC will not be involved with the managing of the apartment building. The owner and operator of the apartment will be The Views of Clarendon Corporation (VCC), a non-profit organization that bought the development rights to the property from the church for $6.5 million.

However, the opponents of the plan were unsatisfied with this. They said that the VCC is really just a shell corporation because several of its proprietors, including its president Jerry Morris, are also the trustees of the church.

The VCC denies this claim and put out a statement which said that it has "ensure[d] the physical and financial separation of the church from the apartment space."

To further guarantee that the county funds would never be used to discriminate, Fisette proposed an amendment to the project that would force the VCC to abide by Arlington’s Human Rights Ordinance even if it were to be repealed by future Boards.

"Church and state separation is of fundamental importance to me," Fisette said. "[But] I am convinced that the separation between church and state is in tact [here]."

On the issue of the building height, Fisette said that while he would "love to get this [building] down to satisfy a lot of people," that simply wasn’t possible. "Every time you ratchet the building down you have to make up the difference elsewhere."

In this case, the difference would mean either less affordable housing units or more county funds. County Manager Ron Carlee said that if the building were to go down from ten to eight floors and still keep the same number of affordable units, the county would have to pitch in $12 million in loans just to make the project economically viable for the VCC.

Based on this, the Board concluded the building can go no lower than ten stories without the county having to pick up an exorbitant share of the costs.

Tejada said that he "is not always a fan of maximizing density [in a neighborhood]." But he said that affordable housing is so crucial in Arlington right now that the Board cannot pass up this opportunity. "The 70 units are an enormous benefit to the community," he said.

The Board also denied that the rezoning of the FBCC property to allow for a ten-story building would give the board the precedent to rezone elsewhere.

Zimmerman tried to ease these concerns by proposing that only Medium-Density Mixed-Use (MDMU) properties within a quarter mile of a Metro station be applicable to this kind of rezoning.

But the opponents of the project were not convinced. They felt that if the Board could rezone the FBCC property, it could rezone any property.

Steve Plosak, an Arlington resident, thought that the Board was on a slippery slope. "What’s next, the development of the East Falls Church neighborhood?" he said.

Favola acknowledged these concerns and went back to Ferguson’s idea that zoning is a partnership between the county government and its constituents. "If [the Board] wanted to do this again," she said, "we would hear about it from the public."

IT APPEARS ALL BUT CERTAIN that this project will be heading back to court. Several Lyon Village residents said as much during their testimony to the Board.

Bruce Ogden, a Lyon Village resident and one of the seven plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, wouldn’t say for sure whether he and his neighbors will sue the county again but said that "there is a reasonable likelihood" that they will.

The plaintiffs of the court case have already spent, by their estimates, more than $200,000 for their legal expenses. Joseph Delahanty, a Lyon Village resident, told the board before the vote that he "has already put $2,500 which I can ill-afford into the legal fund. I will have to put in $2,500 more if you approve this."

Laura Tayloe, another of the plaintiffs, said that the plaintiffs raised the money through neighborhood fund raising. "The neighborhood has been very supportive of us," she said.

However, this support has not translated into any political ramifications for the Board members themselves.

Shortly after the initial plan was approved in 2004, Favola was re-elected to the Board with 63 percent of the vote. In 2006, less than a month after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling, Zimmerman was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote. In both elections, Favola and Zimmerman received majorities from the Lyon Village precinct.