Opinion: Editorial: Oakton’s Blake Lane Park Should Not Be Used as a School Site

Opinion: Editorial: Oakton’s Blake Lane Park Should Not Be Used as a School Site

Fairfax County is at an historic inflection point. Residents are demanding more open space for recreation and leisure enjoyment than ever before. At the same time, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is moving to build a new school on land that has been a public park for decades.

Blake Lane Park is the largest open space available for public use in the Oakton area and is home to the only off-leash dog park in Providence District.

If I am elected to become the Providence Supervisor, I will oppose conveying the property to FCPS for this purpose.

Forty years ago, when development was booming and land was plentiful, the prospect of maintaining in inventory a 10-acre parcel as a school site was appropriately viewed as good planning.

Fast forward to today and the Blake Lane “school site” is surrounded by high-density development, consisting of townhomes, condominiums, and single-family houses that are home to hundreds of families. This area has evolved into one of great ethnic and economic diversity. The area is also an enclave of affordable housing, another increasingly scarce community resource.

What was once for FCPS an easy business decision to build an elementary school on a site dedicated for school use is now a much more complicated one in which community values are in conflict.

Blake Lane Park represents a convergence of Fairfax commitments to (a) quality public education; (b) environmental quality -- including protecting the wildlife and natural vegetation; and (c) equity, as espoused through the Board of Supervisors and School Board’s joint commitments in their One Fairfax Policy.

In weighing these competing values, the scale tips in favor of maintaining scarce open space over building an elementary school.

Once this “green field” is developed it will be lost forever.

FCPS maintains an imbalance in the use of its school facilities. Simply put, FCPS has overcrowded schools and underutilized schools, often within geographic proximity. The School Board should institute a program to adjust boundaries so that all schools are in relative balance.

Land scarcity and the community’s expectation for keeping an inventory of open space and parks should drive a more vertical school design on a smaller footprint.

Additionally, FCPS should consider repurposing empty or obsolete commercial or office buildings and/or reuse already developed “brown fields” to meet its facility needs.

Finally, I was surprised to learn that the decision to transform Blake Lane into a school site – a matter of great consequence to the area residents – was made before the community was informed of the project. The community mistrust and anger resulting from the lack of communication on this matter could and should have been avoided.

FCPS must pursue alternatives to building the new school at Blake Lane Park. The permanent loss of this park land and open space is not justified. Use of park land to meet another public need should only ever be considered as a very last resort and only then after early engagement – and in partnership -- with the community.

Phil Niedzielski-Eichner, Providence Planning Commissioner and Candidate for District Supervisor.