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Another Land Swap for South County?

Supervisors, School Board looking to political leaders to help solve middle school quandary in Lorton.

Crosspointe resident Elizabeth Bradsher doesn't have a professional background in fund raising.

For the second time in a decade, however, Bradsher and other residents of southern Fairfax County are being asked to find creative ways of funding the construction of a school some members of the Fairfax County School system don't believe is necessary.

"The school system needs to take some responsibility," Bradsher said. "But if that's what it take to build a middle school in a timely fashion, that's what we have to do."

During last week’s public hearings, many parents from the South County Secondary school boundary area asked the School Board to help them find a way to fund and build a new middle school as the only fair solution to their school’s overcrowding.

"The school system does not want to be culpable for any middle school in this area at this time," Bradsher said. "We've been told it will take $50 million to get it built."

Those parents may get a helping hand, courtesy of elected officials who are banding together to try to find a way to trade land, owned by the county or the federal government, to swap and sell to a developer to earn money to build the middle school.

One of the first few public mentions of this possible land swap occurred during a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) public meeting last summer, when Del. Dave Albo (R-42) asked U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) to see if any land owned by the government could be traded to a developer during the impending changes to Fort Belvoir and the Engineer Proving Ground as a result of BRAC.

“Tom Davis thought it was a good idea and convened a meeting with (Board of Supervisors chairman) Gerry Connolly (D-At-large), (Supervisor) Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), (School Board members) Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) and Brad Center (Lee), and they talked about how to make that happen,” Albo said. “We’re very encouraged that they’re actively looking at it.”

A letter sent to Davis’ office dated Dec. 1 from Connolly’s office states that Connolly has asked County Executive Anthony Griffin and his staff to re-examine the Laurel Hill-area master plan to see if any property there might be eligible for sale. Connolly's letter also asked Davis to contact the Deputy Secretary of the Army to see if any land might be available at the EPG.

Connolly said all parties involved agreed that something needs to be done to help move students out of South County, but is hesitant to provide funding for the middle school prior to its current place in the School Board’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP), which has the school ready for construction in 2018.

“I think the EPG land would be great,” said Connolly, referring to an 800-acre parcel of land in Springfield, where 18,000 of the 20,000 new Army-related jobs will be relocated by September 2011. “I have some concerns about adding anything in Lorton because we signed a deal when we bought the prison that limits development there. We made a commitment to preserve Lorton,” he said.

Gary Chevalier, chair of the Office of Facilities Planning for the Fairfax County Public Schools, said only that the plans for a land swap are “very conceptual at this point.” He said he had no further information on any possible land swap and does not know of any areas that may be under consideration.

Hyland said he didn’t know if any progress had been made from Davis’ office, but he said he would “wholeheartedly support” a land swap proposal.

“It’s clear a middle school would provide a solution, which is one of the reasons I’d support it,” Hyland said. “The question is, is there federal land that could work and what land, and where is it?”

SOME OF THE more obvious choices at this point may appear to be close to Fort Belvoir, near the EPG or in other areas around the Mount Vernon District, Hyland said.

“The complication or challenge, of course, is when you swap land, what would the land be used for — would it be commercial or residential development? Anytime you develop residentially you get a push back and people will be concerned because it would mean a need for more roads and schools, which might make the overcrowding situation even worse,” Hyland said. “Trying to finesse this is very difficult.”

Due to those concerns, Hyland said any proposal must first have support from residents who live near the site suggested to be sold to developers.

Storck said he’s willing to consider anything that would make the middle school a reality.

“It’s a big challenge and there are several hurdles we’ll have to overcome, but I’m deeply committed to making it happen,” Storck said.

As early as last spring, Storck said he attended meetings with Hyland to discuss potential land swap sites.

“We even met with a developer last spring that was interested in converting some of the land near the site,” Storck said. “What really got everyone focused on a land swap was starting the boundary study process again.”

Brian McNicoll, a spokesman from Davis’ Washington office, said the congressman was “aware of the problem,” but “it’s too early to tell what steps he can take and what role he might want to play” in securing federal land.

Bradsher hopes the school system staff will eventually provide its fair share of support if the community finds a way to finance the middle school.

"It's a public school, it needs to be supported by the school system," she said.