Second Time's a Charm for Clarendon Church Project?

Second Time's a Charm for Clarendon Church Project?

The County Board is taking up the First Baptist Church of Clarendon project again after it was struck down in court last year.

"If at first you don't succeed, try and try again."

That is the motto of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors when it comes to the controversial First Baptist Church of Clarendon (FBCC) project. The board decided on Saturday to take up the issue again after its original plan for the church was struck down in Virginia Supreme Court last year.

The FBCC project, which provoked a contentious debate among Arlington residents when it was first considered in 2004, dealt with the church's plan to renovate its facilities and add a 10-story apartment building on its property.

The church would have received county funds for the project because more than half of the apartments would have been designated as affordable. This angered many, including the political action group Americans for Separation of Church and State, who felt that taxpayer money going toward church renovations was unconstitutional.

OTHERS WERE FURIOUS that the county was allowing the construction of a high rise building in a residential neighborhood.

Joan Rohlfing, a resident of the Lyon Village neighborhood, was quoted in the Arlington Connection in 2004 as saying "I am heart-sick at the prospect of living in the shadow of this 10-story monster."

After the County Board approved the FBCC project in 2004, Rohlfing and six other residents of the neighborhood around the church sued the county claiming that the project violated zoning ordinances regulating the size of buildings in residential neighborhoods. They lost their case in Circuit Court but appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court and won in a unanimous decision.

However, the County Board, eager to create more affordable housing in Arlington, encouraged the church to resubmit their plans. With the court-required zoning changes in place, the board is ready to go forward with the FBCC project again and, at their monthly meeting on Saturday, decided to hold a vote on the matter at their Feb. 24 meeting.

EVEN THOUGH the board was not actually voting on the project, the meeting on Saturday inspired heated debate. Representatives from both sides spoke passionately about the reconsideration of this controversial project.

"This is outrageous!" Robert Ogden, another of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, exclaimed at the meeting. "This plan represents nothing more than the church trying to create luxury apartments to increase their cash flow. This project is ill advised, ill conceived and illegal."

John Antonelli, a county activist, was in favor of the plan and accused the plaintiffs of opposing the affordable housing because they want to keep poor minorities out of their neighborhood.

Those opposed to the FBCC project have had to deal with these accusations before and they vehemently deny any race or class-based motivations for their actions.

Rohlfing told the Arlington Connection last year "[the plaintiffs] are happy to see affordable housing in the building across the street. We just want it in a package not as tall and dense."

DESPITE THE OBJECTIONS, the County Board decided to schedule a vote on the issue at their next meeting, citing cost concerns if the project is not dealt with in the next several months.

Some in the audience accused the board of trying to fast track the issue without enough time for public debate.

Board Member Jay Fissete dismissed these claims, saying that the issue is not on an "expedited schedule because we debated this ad infinitum two years ago." When the measure was initially voted on at the October 2004 board meeting, 100 local residents came to voice their opinions during the debate, which took hours.

Ultimately, four of the five board members voted to consider the item at their February meeting. The lone dissenter, Chairman of the Board Paul Ferguson, said that he "support[s] the issue of affordable housing but, as an attorney, I think we need to find a mediated solution because this has become a very difficult issue."